RICHMOND, Va. -- Lawmakers in Virginia are considering investing $485 million into behavioral health systems during the General Assembly's special session this week.
The investment would help alleviate the stress on state mental hospitals and their resources, as well as families and individuals who are struggling -- even more so now due to the ongoing pandemic.
Kelli Bradley said it’s been heartbreaking watching her 16-year-old step-daughter, Joni, spiral with anxiety and depression.
The stress and isolation of a pandemic has only further complicated the mental health issues she’s suffered since childhood.
“She is the sweetest girl, she really is,” Bradley said. “I just hope she gets the help she needs, and I don’t think she is getting the help she needs.”
Bradley said she and her husband spent weeks trying to find their daughter an open bed at a mental health facility for acute care. It took a Powhatan judge’s order to finally find a place that would accept her.
“I don’t think they’re staffed very well,” Bradley said. “I call and call and I’m on hold forever and trying to get through.”
Over the years, Joni has remained stable in her mental illness with the help of doctors, therapists, outpatient programs and medications.
While Bradley said it’s always been challenging navigating a fragmented mental health system and constant insurance denials, Joni’s condition quickly deteriorated when face-to-face care was eliminated because of the pandemic.
The Bradleys knew they needed to find a mental health facility for their daughter when she repeatedly began running away from home. On one occasion, Joni’s family and police searched for her for 11 days.
“We thought she was in a ditch somewhere for that many days,” Bradley said. “She’s lucky to be alive.”
However, their efforts to find an open bed at a behavioral health facility were unsuccessful the night police found their daughter.
Despite spending several hours at VCU Medical Center, Joni was sent home with her parents. She ran away the next day.
“I told all of them, she is going to run again,” Bradley proclaimed. “They knew she needed a bed, you know what I mean, but their hands were tied.”
The Bradleys are not alone, as many families are struggling with a mental health crisis that’s grown worse over the course of the pandemic -- leaving both private and public hospitals overburdened and understaffed.
In July, safety concerns and staff shortages forced five state mental health hospitals to temporarily close their doors, placing a heavier burden on private facilities.
State and federal funds that come out the General Assembly's special session would be used to support state mental health hospitals and community-based services, including substance abuse and prevention programs.
“We just need to make the investment into the community. That’s the only way that we’re going to solve this problem long term,” said Delegate Patrick Hope, Vice Chair of the Behavioral Health Commission.
“The bottom line is we need more community support than we ever did before. This special session will address the state hospital issue, but long term we have to plow more resources into the community to make sure people don’t go into crisis in the first place,” Hope added.
Dr. Jake O’Shea, Chief Medical Officer with HCA Virginia, hopes state funding will help alleviate the mental health crisis that has led to an overwhelming demand for hospitalizations.
“We are seeing a concentration in substance abuse, certainly, and a higher rate of overdoses than we saw pre-pandemic,” O’Shea added.
While HCA Virginia is the largest private provider for behavioral healthcare, with more than 500 beds statewide and various outpatient programs, he said hospitals can only handle so many patients that need acute mental health care.
The hospital system plans to add more behavioral health beds in Northern Virginia in the immediate future, but adding bed space takes months of planning.
“We have to assess each patient who comes into our facility based on capability to mange what’s going on in the hospital that day, how many beds are available for patients and really take each patient individually,” O’Shea explained.
Kelli Bradley is praying that state and federal funding will help more families who are facing a mental health crisis, and will prevent them from experiencing the same roadblocks that her family faced.
“If I hadn’t kept going and fighting and fighting for her to get residential [treatment], she would be home right now,” Bradley said. “She’s 16 right now. I have two more years to get her the help that she needs before I have no say in anything.”
This segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.