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Advocates say mental health push needs separate teams for separate issues

Psychiatric Hospital Staff Assaults
Ted S. Warren
In this Nov. 18, 2015, photo, a mirror hangs on the ceiling of a hallway in a hospital ward.

Lawmakers are about to consider massive new changes to Virginia's mental health system. But, part of the discussion will be about isolating the problem.

When people talk about problems with mental health, sometimes what they’re actually talking about is a developmental disability. That’s one of the reasons why Brian Kelmar founded a nonprofit known as Legal Reform for the Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled. He says the governor's proposal to create new crisis response teams needs to have separate teams – some for people in a mental health crisis and then others for people with developmental disabilities.

"There is specific training just for developmental disabilities," Kelmar says. "There are people specifically trained on autism and other developmental disabilities. Just because you understand mental illness doesn't mean you also have an expertise in autism or other developmental disabilities."

Sometimes mental health beds in Virginia are also occupied for other reasons, like substance use disorder. Delegate Sam Rasoul says creating a new facility in Roanoke will help free up mental health resources in the region.

"Half of our mental health beds in the western part of Virginia are currently occupied with those suffering from substance use disorder," explains Rasoul. "Just imagine if we were able to effectively treat folks the right way; how many of our mental health beds could be freed up?"

As part of his budget proposal last month, Governor Glenn Youngkin suggested investing $230 million to transform Virginia's behavioral health programs. Advocates say achieving that goal might also require a focus on developmental disabilities and substance use disorder.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.