Virginia Lawmakers Pledge to Pass Mental Health Reform

Jan 18, 2017 | Alana Austin

Virginia lawmakers are considering broad reaching — and a few possibly expensive steps — to improve emergency access to mental health resources across Virginia.

Few argue the need but the issue is balancing that with costs.

Much of the discussion for reform of care in jails and prisons began with the death of Jamycheal Mitchell.

Mitchell was arrested in 2015 for allegedly stealing $5 worth of snacks from a 7-11 in Hampton Roads. The 24-year-old had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and after going months without treatment he lost an extreme amount of weight and died alone in a jail cell.

“We don’t want this to happen to any other young men in Virginia. We plead with legislatures to ensure that changes are made in the law to better protect young men like Jamycheal who suffer from mental illness,” said Roxanne Adams, Mitchell’s aunt.

“That’s why we are before you today because we do not want Jamycheal Mitchell’s death to be in vain,” said Delegate Roslyn Tyler, D-75th District.

Now a group of lawmakers says this session, there’s bipartisan support to put in place comprehensive mental health reform. About 10 bills under consideration would require faster access to treatment, health care, and medication.

Legislation would also enhance screenings and training for jail staff. Another bill would expand housing options for those deemed to have mental illness.

“We need a very safe and solid safety net from the prevention end, in the jail end, to the treatment end, and to ongoing care,” said Senator Barbara Favola, D-31st District.

Although state leaders must deal with a budget gap of almost $1.3 billion, leaders say change on this issue cannot wait.

“For Jamycheal to languish in his cell without treatment – without nutrition – I can’t explain it but if his death has any meaning at all, we have to do something about it,” said Delegate Steve Heretick, D-79th District.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has asked lawmakers to consider approving about $30 million in sweeping reform to the mental health system. The bills that would require increased spending would first need to be approved by the house and senate money committees.