My daughter was diagnosed with a mental health disorder when she was 8 years old. However, most of the time, you would never guess that my daughter has a mental illness. She loves dolphins, and the color teal, and books and art. But she also suffers from bipolar disorder — a mental illness that makes her mood change and prevents her from always acting or reacting the way her peers do.
As her parent, I have eagerly followed the debate in the General Assembly about Virginia’s mental health system. I am saddened that it takes a tragedy to bring attention to this issue, but I am grateful that our lawmakers seem poised to add significant funding to the budget to help adults with mental illness access treatment. Clearly, the needs are great, and my daughter may very well benefit from these improvements when she is an adult.
What worries me, though, is that my daughter and approximately 100,000 other kids in the Commonwealth are struggling with serious mental health disorders now, when they are children. The legislature — and the public — are at risk of ignoring their needs with the overwhelming focus on the adult system.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, half of all mental illness begins before age 14. Treating the disease early, when children first show symptoms, is critical in keeping kids on a positive trajectory of completing school, avoiding the juvenile justice system, and avoiding behaviors like substance abuse for which they are at higher risk.
We have been lucky. My family has been able to access the intensive treatment my daughter currently needs. But others are not. A report given to the General Assembly just two years ago shows that most localities in the state have inadequate mental health services for kids, and wait lists are often long.
Fortunately, the Senate is looking at the problem more holistically. Its budget amendments include $1.5 million for children’s crisis services and child psychiatry over the next two years. This funding builds upon the base of $3.65 million the legislature has provided the last two years to build up these services around the state.
While this amount of funding is small compared to what is being proposed for adults, it is a significant step toward making treatment available to kids with mental illness. Throughout Virginia, this seed funding is being used to provide critical services that keep kids out psychiatric hospitals. In the support group I lead in Fairfax, I talk to parents all the time whose kids could benefit if these crisis intervention services were expanded — parents who are concerned for their children and seeking help.
Our lawmakers deserve our thanks for the intense scrutiny of the adult mental health system. But we cannot afford to have them overlook the needs of kids this year. On behalf of all parents of children with mental illness, I urge the handful of lawmakers currently negotiating the state budget to support the Senate’s funding for children’s mental health treatment.
Cristy Gallagher, Fairfax