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How a lack of therapists, funding hurts Virginia kids in crisis

Posted at 5:09 PM, Dec 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-08 23:30:44-05

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Following a roundtable discussion exploring mental health challenges that teens and younger children face, two big takeaways were the lack of mental health workers to support kids in need and inadequate government funding devoted to this issue.

That conversation led CBS 6 to the child advocacy group Voices for Virginia's Children. The Henrico-based non-profit works to champion policies that improve the lives of children throughout Virginia.

CEO Amy Strite said without proper funding and resources in place, the youth mental health crisis only deepens and many children will go without help.

"The stake is that children won't be well," Strite said. "We're looking not only at where they are today but in their future. What we don't address now will not go away."

Strite said kids are living through two pandemics — COVID-19 and racism in America. The latter is not new but heightened now.

There are also many other societal issues challenging kids' well-being, like gun violence.

Strite said white children were twice as likely to receive mental health treatment than Black and Latinx children.

While there is help out there for children, there is not enough.

"We're really hoping that by elevating this need around the workforce shortage and that workforce shortage encompasses all areas within the mental health system, we are hoping that will draw attention. We also know that there need to be supports in place, particularly therapists in place, who are culturally representative of individuals who need support the most, and so that's one of our areas of focus for this coming year to elevate that, to work with other entities who also are considering that as an important need," Strite said.

"We know that supports need to be put in place and there needs to be revenue that supports programs, we also know that there are not enough services and support. There's a workforce shortage and we need to make changes."

Like the group CBS 6 assembled in mid-November, Strite said she believed we're in a state of emergency.

She said children were being diagnosed more frequently with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, depression, anxiety, and behavioral challenges.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backed that up.

According to the CDC, nearly 17 million children between 2 to 17 years old have been diagnosed with ADHD, a behavior problem, anxiety, or depression. In some instances, varying combinations of these conditions occur together.

Strite said statistics were one way to express the urgency of the crisis to lawmakers.

Beyond the numbers, members of the public invested in the issue have to get in front of lawmakers face to face.

"We want to encourage people with lived experience to share their story and so we create opportunities where we'll schedule meetings with various legislators and talk to them and really provide an opportunity to educate and talk about what matters and how they can make a difference. There are lawmakers who care deeply for children, and they want to make a difference. I think it's important that we share a wide variety of stories and again, that goes to destigmatizing mental health, " Strite said.

Through their advocacy, Voices hopes to address the workforce shortage, get training in schools, improve care coordination and expand the Virginia Mental Health Access Program. The program helps health care providers take better care of children with mental health conditions through provider education and increasing access to child psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers.

While there are many challenges, Strite said there have also been successes.

"We're really fortunate this past year that we were able to really gain some success with Medicaid reimbursement. The General Assembly passed a bill that allows schools to actually bill for health and mental health support," Strite said.

The bill spearheaded by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R - Chesterfield) gives the Virginia Department of Medicaid Assistance Services the green light to update their policies so local school divisions can bill Medicaid for health and mental health services for students.

School divisions already provide some services but only to students with what's called an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Those are typically special needs students who may need occupational, physical, or speech therapy. However, this opens eligibility to all students who might be in need, expanding services to include access to counselors, social workers, nurses, or behavior therapy at school.

This is a significant accomplishment because many times families can't afford or access these services for children on their own. However, there's more to be done before this can take effect.

In a statement, Voices' Chief Policy Officer, Emily Griffey said:

"The next step is for DMAS to seek approval for their changes from the federal government. Schools will need more training & technical assistance on how they can bill/allocate costs to unlock these funds since Medicaid, like all insurance, can have complex billing processes."

Griffey said approval from the federal government could come by next summer.

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