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Mental Health Training Pushed By Virginia Lawmakers

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Virginia lawmakers are about to consider a new program to train school officials and human service workers in mental health first aid. The bill is a reaction, at least in part, to the shooting tragedy in Connecticut last month.

A few months ago, a woman showed up at City Hall in Alexandria and raised alarm bells. The city officials contacted adult protective services, and Sue Ellen Mawhinney showed up to assess the situation.

"She was bald, she was having some medical treatments and she had recently lost her hair," Mawhinney says. "And because it was a beautiful day, she had taken her wig off and left it in the car. So her appearance was a little-off putting."

Mawhinney assessed the situation and determined how to help the woman, partly because she has had extensive training in dealing with people who have a variety of mental illnesses. But the people who work on the front lines there at City Hall and in school across Virginia might soon see some of that training too.

Alexandria Del. Rob Krupicka is introducing a bill that would create a new full-time position at every Community Services Board in Virginia to conduct Mental Health First Aid training in a variety of settings. A grant program would pay for training programs in schools, so people who greet the public would be able to spot red flags.

"The basic idea is to make sure that people are aware of the kind of circumstances and issues that can go awry with different types of mental health conditions," Krupicka says.

Wilma Roberts is a social worker who has already been trained in Mental Health First Aid, a program that helps people recognize the signs of mental health problems and know how to respond properly. Roberts says that over the years, she's heard from people who believe that their left shoe has been stolen or that a stranger is hiding in the mirror.

"The first thing you do is listen patiently. You don't argue. You don't make it seem like they are a liar," Roberts say. Most importantly, she adds, you don't escalate the situation. 

Krupicka estimates that the program could cost anywhere from $3 million to $5 million, depending on how many people receive the training. 

"I think we know that mental health issues have a real role in community safety in our state, and if we are really committed to preventing tragedies we've got to find ways to fund this," Krupicka says.

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