RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A local middle school student says more state funding is urgently needed as the pandemic drives an increase in mental health problems among children.

Fourteen-year-old Elijah Lee, a student at Swift Creek Middle School in Chesterfield and the founder of “Hear Our Voices,” asked members of the General Assembly to make this a priority as lawmakers craft the two-year budget. He said therapy helped him overcome past struggles and he wants other students to have access to that help too.

“I lost my father when I was three years old and, from there, I decided my mental health needed to be a priority,” Lee said. “I understand the impact that mental health can have, especially on our young people, and right now it is more critical than ever.”

A budget amendment proposed by Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Delegate Marcia Price (D-Newport News) would allocate $20 million over two years from the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) to local school divisions to contract for community-based mental health services. The grants would create a pathway for students who need additional support for more severe conditions and relieve pressure on school counselors that are being stretched thin.

“One person is automatically charged with the mental health of 200 plus people possibly and to me that is simply unacceptable,” Lee said. “Our young people are dying and we are ignoring it because we refuse to have our young people at the table.” 

McClellan said the current resources dedicated to children’s behavioral health services by Community Services Boards (CSBs) and DBHDS is less than 10% of the system-wide budget.

“In many parts of our state budget, kids don’t get their fair share. That is especially true now, and we have to provide children’s mental health services to meet the growing demand,” McClellan said during a virtual press conference hosted by Voices for Virginia’s Children on Friday.

Even with additional funding, the push to scale up mental health resources is complicated by a shortage of providers.

Delegate Emily Brewer (R-Smithfield) said only five localities across the state have a sufficient supply of child psychiatrists to meet the demand and wait lists are building. She said Virginia ranked 41st for mental health workforce availability last year.

“That number only continues to dwindle,” Brewer said.

Other proposals in the General Assembly aim to increase training efforts across the healthcare industry and speed up licensure for individuals seeking advanced degrees in social work or counseling. Also being considered are recruitment and retention bonuses for certain behavioral health providers and a boost in Medicaid reimbursement rates for mental health services.

A budget amendment from Del. Carrie Coyner (R-Chesterfield) would restore funding that was previously sidelined for a substance use recovery high school in Chesterfield County.

“We can pilot the first ever recovery high school in the region and then take what we learn from this pilot and share that success across the Commonwealth so that all children and families can be served and no child has to make a choice between receiving the help that they need for a substance use disorder and graduating on time,” Coyner said.

Meanwhile, there are various efforts underway to further the study of school-based mental health services to inform the best use of future resources.

As lawmakers search for solutions, Lee is urging fellow students to stay strong.

“We are powerful, we are resilient and we are strong. We have been to school during a global pandemic. We have overcome countless obstacles. We must continue,” Lee said.