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Virginia's Child Mental Health Services Underfunded

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Mental health advocates plan to lobby Virginia's General Assembly for $20 million in the upcoming general session, after a new study by the a state mental health agency found that mental health programs for children in the state are severely underfunded. The problem seems to be that the system that is overwhelmed, according to George Braunstein, executive director of the Fairfax and Falls Church Community Services board. 

"We do know that the availability of child psychiatrists is a shortage state-wide, and we're asking for additional resources so that an additional 4,000 children can be served," Braunstein says. 

For Cristy Gallagher of Alexandria, the shortage has been very real for her 9-year-old daughter, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Gallagher says she knew something was wrong when her daughter's tantrums stretched well past the so-called "terrible 2s."

"Long, long temper tantrums that lasted beyond your typical reaction to not getting your way. And then we had insomnia," Gallagher says. Her daughter is now on three medications that help stabilize her, and she sees a psychiatrist. "But as you can imagine we had to pay for all of that pretty much out of pocket," Gallagher adds.

Gallagher sought out government-funded programs to help defray the costs, but it was only after her daughter became violent that public services for in-school and at-home counseling became an option. 

"It wasn't until we were in crisis that we got that service," she says. That's typical, because state-funded programs generally only address emergencies, according to Braunstein.

"They almost have to wait until they are in crisis to access the limited amount of services that are available," Braunstein says.

According to the nonprofit Voices for Virginia's Children, one in five children deal with a mental health condition, but only 20 percent of those receive the treatment they need.

That's because the state-run mental health programs for children need more staffing, according to Margaret Nimmo Crowe of Voice's for Virginia Children says. Additional funding would help to make behavioral therapy programs more readily available, before it's an emergency, she adds.

"This biggest problem that we have is access to mental health treatment," she says. "So children, regardless of what income their family has or what insurance they have all have trouble accessing appropriate treatment."

Crowe and other behavioral health advocates plan to petition the General Assembly for more mental health funding Jan. 26.

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