Last summer, Del. Joseph Yost, R-Pearisburg, invited educators, guidance counselors, school nurses and parents to a meeting to talk about his idea to begin screening all public school children for signs of mental illness.
“I told them what I wanted to do, and they freaked out. Not that they thought it was a horrible idea,” Yost said. “They agreed 100 percent. The problem is in the implementation.”
Who would do the screening? What tool would be used? Who would pay for it? What would schools be obligated to do if a child appears to have a mental illness? Would a child be labeled?
With too many unanswered questions, Yost said he decided to scale back his grand plan to one that could gain approval in the General Assembly. The result is that the state will study the benefits of offering voluntary mental health screenings in public elementary schools.
He settled for a study, and for just elementary children, though he had hoped middle- and high-school students could benefit as well.
Children with untreated mental illnesses are at risk of doing poorly in school, running afoul of the criminal justice system, abusing drugs and attempting and committing suicide.
The study is a baby step toward helping more children, Yost said, but one toward his goal in which mental health screenings are as ubiquitous in schools as dental, vision and scoliosis screenings. And it is a step toward a time in which mental health is viewed the same way as physical health.
“Hopefully within my lifetime we will have parity with physical illness and mental illness. To me they are the same. Mental illness is a physical illness,” he said.
The resolution requires the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to convene a working group of stakeholders, similar to the one Yost assembled last summer, to study the benefits of offering voluntary mental health screenings.
Yost said the group will offer preliminary findings to the General Assembly by year’s end and will offer recommendations in 2016.
“I was amazed that I got the resolution for the study,” he said. He was concerned about cost (which will be absorbed by the department’s budget) and the perception of labeling children.
“The big factor is if you do this screening and label someone with a mental illness — what to me I don’t think is a bad thing — then there is a stigma,” he said. In making screening a common practice, Yost said he hopes the stigma will go away.
“We support it [the resolution] because early intervention is the key to successful and effective treatment of mental health problems,” said Mira Signer, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia. “Screening tools can effectively identify children who are at risk of experiencing mental health problems or who are experiencing mental health problems.”
Yost, who is a mental health consultant, represents Radford, Giles County and parts of Montgomery and Pulaski counties.
He said the idea for universal mental health screenings for children is not new. The idea was broached in the 2003 President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health.
“It’s not a new concept, but there hasn’t been any real movement,” he said. A couple of states recently nibbled at the edges, exploring studies and pilot projects.
One challenge is that there isn’t a universally used screening tool developed for children, he said. Another is finding the money to identify illnesses and treat them.
A state report in 2011 identified a severe lack of mental health services for children. Yost said the General Assembly did include $2 million more in the state budget to fund child psychology services across Virginia, but the need is much greater.
Yost said the idea for a study met no resistance, but his first attempt to implement screening did.
“It is not the idea but the implementation and how the service would be provided,” said Tom Smith, legislative liaison for the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. Funds to pay for screening and any additional services the schools would need to offer is a hurdle.
Smith said lawmakers in recent years have passed bills that make sense but then failed to back up mandates with money.
“For example, a couple years ago, the General Assembly mandated EpiPens for folks who have different allergies. They funded it for the first year, but not the second year,” he said.
Salem Superintendent Alan Seibert, who is president of the association, said, “We are certainly committed to the well-being of children. We hope to have a seat at the table and that this is just not another unfunded mandate.”