On a rainy Tuesday during the first full week of Virginia’s 2023 General Assembly session, eighteen advocates took the Virginia legislature by storm. This group, ranging in age from 13 to 21, included members of Virginia’s Youth in Action, Pretty Purposed, and some returning advocates who had previous virtual advocacy experience.
Youth advocates enjoyed a photo scavenger hunt that took them around Downtown Richmond. Photography by advocate Jonathan Jackson.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the day before our advocacy day, our staff and youth advocates convened for a full day of training. After some ice breakers and team building, advocates prepared for media opportunities with Shannon Strategies. The Voices policy team worked with advocates in smaller groups to review bills being presented this session and to practice storytelling and public speaking strategies. After a photo scavenger hunt that took youth around downtown Richmond, the group closed the day by making Valentines for legislators and doing final preparations for advocacy day.
Advocates and the Voices team had fun with Polaroid cameras, provided by The Spark Mill
Fired up and ready to go! Our Voices team rallied youth advocates for an early morning start from the Marriott. Photography by Ty Begley, Z2B Photography
Our Youth in Action Advocacy Day started with some grounding and rallying at the Marriott before heading over to the Pocahontas Building.
Broken into five smaller groups, advocates held an impressive 22 legislative meetings, with several of them meeting their own representatives. Advocates shared personal stories about their experiences with school belonging, school based and crisis mental health, and gun violence.
Zee and Nya Byrant met with their representative, Del. Hudson.
Advocacy often includes sharing difficult personal stories, but advocates Kayla, Kennedy, and Ava were able to find joy and laughter throughout the day.
Starting the day off on a high note with an 8:00 AM meeting with Del. Glass.
The day culminated in a bipartisan press conference led by VAYA Advocates, Ishika Vij and Heciel Nieves-Bonilla, on the urgent mental health needs of young people. They were joined in support by Senator McClellan, Delegate Brewer, Senator Favola, Senator McPike, and Delegate Rasoul.
“When I was facing a mental health crisis, my counselor was not properly equipped to connect me to resources, and instead, she waited until there was severe suicidal ideation to provide access to receive additional help. – Ishika Vij
“Some of the major problems those seeking [mental health support] face is the inequity of service, whether based on poverty level, race, occupation, gender, language, immigration status, transportation capacity, or zip code. – Heciel Nieves-Bonilla
As Ishika and Heciel proceeded with an interview about student mental health for ABC8 News, advocates met with Secretary of Health & Human Services, Secretary John Littel, to hear more about how the Youngkin administration is approaching regional mental health needs, followed by a brief Q & A.
Finally, with a last rally through the Capitol, advocates were recognized and celebrated with an introduction in the House (by Delegate Adams) and in the Senate (by Senator Mason).
The Voices team is inspired and in awe of the incredible and courageous work that our advocates have already done this legislative season and are excited for more to come from Virginia’s Youth in Action. We are thankful to all the supporters and hosts we met at the General Assembly and the Capitol. We are so grateful to Ty Begley of Z2B Photography for capturing our most precious moments throughout the day. We are also thankful for our advocates’ greatest cheerleaders and champions – the parents, guardians, educators, and helpers that have shaped them into the passionate and bright young minds they are today.
Last week, Voices hosted its Virginia’s Youth in Action (VAYA) Advocacy Day at the General Assembly with 18 bright and impressive young advocates from around the state. In total, VAYA advocates attended 22 legislative meetings, participated in a bipartisan press conference focused on youth mental health, and had a one-on-one discussion with Secretary of Health and Human Resources, John Littel. The day ended with advocates being introduced in the House by Delegate Adams and the Senate by Senator Mason!
“Good morning, everyone! I am Ishika Vij, and I am here as a part of Virginia’s Youth and Action.
Places where young people could get mental health assistance were already in the decline but have now reached an all-time low. I live in Loudoun County, which is statistically the richest county in Virginia, however, there’s still not enough mental health access and support for students throughout the school day. It follows that service is much worse in other counties that do not receive as much funding. It’s honestly shocking to see how much of the budget goes towards things other than our youth, even though young people are the future. They face the effects of social media, politics, the effects of the pandemic, and traumas that they have faced in their day-to-day lives.
Although there are counselors available within schools, most of them are not properly equipped to deal with the mental health issues that the youth are facing today. For instance, counselors have to take a larger batch of students. There are long wait times to even reach a counselor, and the short 15-minute meeting does not give a chance for a counselor to truly understand what’s going on.
For instance, when I was facing a mental health crisis, my counselor was not properly equipped to connect me to resources, and instead, she waited until there was severe suicidal ideation to provide access to receive additional help. This could have been prevented, and instead I did not have to wait for an extreme, such as suicide, for my mental health to be taken seriously. This has also happened to several of my peers, even though there are trusted resources that exist, we were just never given them. We couldn’t figure out what we were struggling with, and especially coming from a first-generation immigrant family, my family was even more confused on what actions to take.
A counselor should have the time with each student to recognize warning signs, instead of focusing on other factors, and they should be equipped to connect with guardians and community resources to get help as soon as possible. However, this is not happening. Counselors are not able to easily access trustable sources, or recognize when these sources need to be enacted.
If counselors were properly equipped in the first place, and students were provided more resources about how to help each other through this tough time, we don’t have to wait until it’s too late. Schools need adequate resources to hire enough mental health counselors and professionals to properly understand the mental health disorders and how they present currently, along with the resolving of the high ratios of students assigned to each counselor, so that each student is given the full care they need.
Youth is our future, and raising these children without the proper assistance they need to ensure that their mental health is a priority, when we do have the resources to fund a system, is simply not OK. We have the budget; we just need to figure out how to properly distribute it in order to ensure that more counselors can be hired to specifically focus upon student mental health. Also, to have the additional funding to hire more counselors, so we can decrease the large student to counselor ratio. We need to create a better understanding of mental health for all, so that as a community we can work together to ensure this for our youth. Thank you.”
“Morning! My name is Heciel Nieves-Bonilla. I’m here to endorse the prospect of change in mental health care, for everyone but especially in the case of children and teenagers. The significance of so-called ‘invisible’ ailments is not lost on me personally – In fact I only live here in Virginia at all because a long time ago my family saw in this state an opportunity. One to better care for the invisible and developmental disabilities of my siblings and I through the medical system. We took a chance on this state and have called its forests and mountains and beaches home for over a decade, and our story has come with a lot of success.
However in the period since we have discovered what it means to live in a place near the bottom nationally for access to care—this year Virginia ranks 48th in youth mental health access according to Mental Health America. For us, counseling or therapy of any kind has always been delayed and often dependent on either day-consuming drives to Richmond or NoVa. Or good computers and internet access that we didn’t always have.
Medical resources for dealing with, for example, anxiety and depression, only became reliably available to us after learning the tricks of the system – and that was after jumping over the hurdle of English as a second language, which after many years still represents a barrier to access for many of the least affluent among us. In fact, in our experience, once we managed to speak to the correct social work employee or school representative the issue often existed of the service we were looking for simply not existing for our language needs. It’s even fair to say that there exist parallel systems for medical access broadly but mental health care access in particular: one for people with English proficiency, transportation access, and the money and resources to take full advantage of all the state has to offer, and one for people without one or more of those things, both of which would benefit from equity and from attention. In fact one of the major problems those seeking aid face is the inequity of service, whether based on poverty level, race, occupation, gender, language, immigration status, transportation capacity, or zip code.
It’s inaccurate to say mental health access issues are not discussed, but it largely revolves around incidents of gun violence or suicide, the rates of which have risen among young people in Virginia and which are correctly identified as crises. It’s a devastating consequence of many things, including a lack of enthusiastic outreach to children about their own mental health. But we shouldn’t get it twisted – among the reasons why mental health matters are the realities of children’s individual needs throughout the whole gamut of care. To a larger point, to characterize the establishment of better mental health resources in terms of responding to a crisis is to miss the fact that the health of all Virginians, mental and physical, matters. It matters on its own merit.
We ask you to support these proposals to support a positive school climate, increase access to transportation to care, extend informational and therapy sources to Spanish and other languages, and add more and better counseling to schools. This is an investment in the future. In the name of stories like ours continuing to be possible and getting easier, and in to help make Virginia that state of opportunity for all youth.”
Voices for Virginia’s Children is proud to announce the inaugural members of Virginia’s Youth in Action (VAYA). Before starting my role here at Voices, I was a mental health clinician at ChildSavers, a non-profit in Richmond that provides children’s mental health services and child care resources. After years of working one-on-one with my clients, it was clear that even the best therapies I offered could not overcome the impact of the prolonged poverty, systemic racism, and ongoing community violence so many children and youth were experiencing in Richmond. I made the difficult decision to leave full-time clinical work and join the Voices’ team with the hopes that I could advocate for a better, more comprehensive mental health system for children.
Part of my role is to empower young people with lived experience to share their stories for change using a healing-centered model. With VAYA, our goal is to further participants’ empathetic, inclusive perspectives of others through evidence-based, healing-centered curriculums that show the connections between culture, community, and social economics. We hope to strengthen the public speaking, advocacy, and leadership skills of each participant so they are empowered to use their individual and collective voice to make progress in areas where change is slow and unjust. Most importantly, we aim to equip these young leaders to meet the moment as society’s most marginalized communities continue to be underrepresented in decision making.