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Virginia lawmakers look for ways to address rising mental health challenges

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Virginia lawmakers look for ways to address rising mental health challenges

Feb 27, 2024 | 12:02 am ET
By Nathaniel Cline
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Virginia lawmakers look for ways to address rising mental health challenges
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After a handful of Democratic-backed bills aimed at addressing the rise in behavioral issues in schools died last session, lawmakers are pushing forward legislation to improve mental health services by dedicating additional funding to the issue, encouraging schools to set up telehealth services for students and focusing teacher mental health training on at-risk students. 

However, other proposals to increase the number of counselors and behavioral professionals in schools have faltered over cost concerns, with legislators calling for further study of the changes as Virginia conducts a broader reexamination of the funding it provides to divisions. 

Cat Atkinson, a policy analyst for Voices for Virginia’s Children, said the 2024 legislative session has produced some successes and some losses for efforts to improve student mental health, but lawmakers should still do more to address the issue through the budget. 

“We still are navigating a mental health crisis for our young people,” she said. “If we are not continuing to advocate for more funding and more support to schools for our young people, and if our legislature is not prioritizing young people’s mental health, we’re going to continue to see challenges in our schools.”

Following the return of in-person learning as the COVID-19 pandemic eased, school staff across Virginia rated student behavior as the most serious issue they were facing. A 2022 study by Virginia’s legislative watchdog found most students “feel nervous, anxious or on edge.” It also found Virginia schools employed fewer mental health staff than recommended by national associations: one psychologist for every 1,322 students, far above the national recommended ratio of one per 500 students. Vacancies in school mental health positions were up, which researchers linked to low job satisfaction and morale, as well as “all of the social-emotional trauma to keep students performing academically.”

Some divisions took creative approaches to the problem by launching pilot programs to help students in need. But in Southwest Virginia, at least one key provider pulled out of divisions over disagreements with the state about how it was managing services for students with behavioral problems.

In 2023, Democrats in the General Assembly put forward a slate of bills intended to increase mental health services to students, including proposals to require divisions to employ additional counselors, provide instruction on mental health in every classroom, require school bus drivers to receive mental health training, and amend the state constitution to give students the right to access a school-based mental health professional.

However, House Republicans killed some of the bills, arguing they would have created more responsibilities for schools and duplicated resources. Others died in the House without a hearing.

Funding

This year, Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the General Assembly have proposed different funding solutions to address increased mental health issues in schools.

In December, the governor proposed $14.4 million for schools to secure telehealth services for mental health for middle and high school students and establish a chief school mental health officer, as well as $15 million for grants to health centers and organizations to provide mental health services to schools. 

Both the Democratic-controlled House and Senate deleted the $14.4 million item in their proposed budgets. The Senate has retained Youngkin’s proposal for $15 million in grants, while the House is calling for that funding to go toward the creation of school-based health clinics that would provide mental health services as well as primary and other care to students, their families, and staff. 

Encouraging schools to set up telehealth services for students

Legislation is poised to pass in both chambers that would allow schools to expand the mental health services they offer students by contracting with telehealth providers. The bill would build on a law that passed last year requiring the state to craft a model memorandum of understanding that school boards could use to obtain mental health services from a public or private community provider.

“While research shows that telehealth should not be used as a substitute for face-to-face behavioral health services, it should be used as a supplement to cover accessibility,” said Del. Kannan Srinivasan, D-Loudoun, the patron of the bill.

An earlier version of Srinivasan’s bill would have required school boards to make school based-mental health services more accessible to students by expanding “virtual” resources. The legislation was later amended to say boards could take such steps but weren’t mandated to do so.  

Focusing teacher mental health training on at-risk students

Del. Rozia Henson Jr., D-Prince William, is carrying legislation that would require teachers and other relevant school personnel to complete mental health awareness training that addresses the needs of students “at a high risk of experiencing mental health challenges and disorders.”   

The goal, said Henson, is to “address the specific needs of groups of students who are underserved due to unique problems they are facing.” 

Those groups would include students with mental or physical disabilities, students who identify as LGBTQ+ and students experiencing homelessness, among others.

Current law only says teachers and certain other school employees have to complete mental health awareness training at least once.

Putting more mental health professionals in schools

The House and Senate are taking different approaches when it comes to increasing the number of mental health professionals in schools. While the House has punted bills that would have hiked staffing levels to a new joint subcommittee for further study, the Senate is moving forward with one proposal.

Legislation from Del. Phil Hernandez, D-Norfolk, would have increased the required number of state-funded specialized student support positions — a category that includes school social workers, psychologists, nurses and other behavioral health professionals — from three per 1,000 students to four. 

“Half of all mental health illnesses will begin by the age of 14. Schools are a natural place for [young people] to seek assistance, and that is part of what under occurs this legislation,” said Hernandez during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

The proposal is estimated to cost the state an additional $115 million over the next two years.

Another proposal from Del. Michael Feggans, D-Virginia Beach, would have increased the number of counselors in school divisions by reducing the state’s permitted counselor-to-student ratio from 1:325 to 1:250.

Previously, Virginia mandated counselor ratios of 1:375 for elementary schools, 1:325 for middle schools and 1:300 for high schools. In 2022, the General Assembly standardized that requirement to 1:325 for all schools. 

The change would require an estimated $126 million from the state over the next two years.

“I think the more and more we look at the lack of mental health professionals that we have in our communities to provide services outside of school and counselors services in school, I think this is a piece of the overall package we need to rethink of how we are providing counseling services in our schools,” said Del. Carrie Coyner, D-Chesterfield, who sits on the subcommittee.

Finally, legislation from Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, would have required schools to employ at least one career coach at each high school in an effort to ease existing burdens on counselors.

Simonds said the coaches would be responsible for assisting students with securing internships, externships and credentialing opportunities.

“This career coach would actually take workload off the plate of some school counselors, allowing them more time to focus on other things like student mental health and college readiness,” Simonds said.

While lawmakers were supportive of all three proposals, they ultimately decided to refer them to the Joint Subcommittee to Study Elementary and Secondary Education Funding to consider them as part of a broader study of whether and how the state should change the way it funds schools. 

Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, said a 2023 state report that found Virginia was underfunding K-12 schools highlighted unrealistic staffing ratios. 

“There’s a lot of moving parts and it’s going to be extraordinarily expensive to right size this ship,” Bulova said. “We do need to make sure we are adequately funding it, but we need to do it in a phased approach that allows us to absorb that financial shock not just from the state level, but also on the local level.”

While the proposals from Hernandez and Feggans aimed at putting more mental health professionals in schools have stalled in the House, a companion bill put forward by Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Richmond, has been incorporated into a broader bill that makes changes to how the state funds schools through the Standards of Quality.

While the omnibus bill does not order a decrease in the number of students per counselor or an increase in specialized student support positions, it would require the joint subcommittee to study “the hiring of additional counselors, testing coordinators and licensed behavior analysts.”

“​I hold the areas of education and public safety close to my heart,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, the chief patron of the omnibus bill. “People of my generation, Black and white alike, were unable to attend school during Massive Resistance, and I want to make sure that no child is ever denied the ability to have a quality public education or denied the ability to grow up in a safe and supportive community.”