RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia students are urging state lawmakers to improve mental health services, especially in schools. 

During a recent visit to the State Capitol with the advocacy group Virginia’s Youth in Action, Ishika Vij, a high school student in Loudoun County, and Heciel Nieves-Bonilla, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University, sounded the alarm about growing mental health needs.

“It definitely is a crisis,” Nieves-Bonilla said. “The real fact of it is that people don’t know where to go to get mental health assistance.”

Vij, 16, said she faced hurdles getting help with an eating disorder at school as a 12-year-old. For one thing, she claims it took roughly three weeks to get a 15-minute appointment. In addition, she said her case was later escalated after she told her counselor about suicidal thoughts.

“It takes a really long time in this backed-up system and I wasn’t in such an extreme crisis at the moment but imagine there was a student who was in that state and they didn’t know what to do. Maybe it would’ve been too late,” Vij said. 

A bill from Senator Jeremy McPike would tighten the state’s definition of “school counselor” and require that they spend most of their time providing direct services to students.

“We don’t need them diverted to substitute teaching, lunch duty and other things. It’s really dedicating that time to where the students need it,” McPike said. 

The bill would also expand the pool of people schools can hire as school counselors by allowing clinical psychologists to offer services with a temporary license while they obtain additional certification. It also directs the Board of Education to create a template that schools can use to partner with community mental health providers and streamline student referrals.

“We have to be more nimble. We know our kids are in crisis right now and this is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” McPike said.

Another proposal from Senator Creigh Deeds would require annual trauma-informed care training for teachers. This would help educators recognize early warning signs and connect students with support services.

A budget amendment from Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, who is also a public school teacher, proposes nearly $59 million to pay for the state’s share of hiring more school counselors. If approved, it would fund at least one counselor for every 250 students, down from the current ratio of 325 to one.  VanValkenburg said that’s the Board of Education’s recommended staffing level and it’s considered a national best practice.

“I think it was a missed opportunity by the Governor. We’re doing a lot of talking about school excellence and mental health. Counselors and support staff are vital for all of that,” VanValkenburg said.

Asked why Gov. Glenn Youngkin isn’t proposing direct funding to hire more school counselors, Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Service John Littel said his plan is intended to be carried out over three years and their first priority is expanding crisis infrastructure.

“There is a lot of agreement about all of the components of this. It is probably the most bipartisan thing going on in the Assembly today,” Littel said in a phone interview on Monday.

Littel said Youngkin’s plan to expand school-based mental health services has two main components. 

Youngkin is proposing an additional $15 million in flexible grants that school divisions can use in a variety of ways to best meet student mental health needs locally. It will build on a $2.5 million pilot program that launched last year.

“The governor told us anything that looks like it’s working, let’s do more of it,” Littel said. “So that’s not going to be system-wide, but it will create opportunities in several to a couple dozen school districts.”

Another $9 million seeks to expand tele-behavioral health services at state-funded institutions of higher education. Littel said the goal is to take pressure off of campus-based services so those slots can be used by students with the most severe conditions. 

“We think we might be able to take care of all the costs for that so they can use the funds that they have invested in it in other mental health services,” Littel said. 

As the General Assembly debates what proposals should stay in the final budget, Vij said lawmakers need to make student mental health a top priority. 

“We can only do so much. We can talk about it but it’s up to them to vote and make a change,” Vij said.