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!
At the press conference, Ishika Vij and Heciel Nieves-Bonilla shared their personal stories on why we need to prioritize mental health support in Virginia. Echoing their call for action were state legislators Sen. Barbara Favola, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, Sen. Jeremy McPike, Del. Emily Brewer, and Del. Sam Rasoul. Check out CBS6’s coverage of the press conference and 8News’ sit-down interview with Ishika and Heciel.
Read their full comments below:
“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.”
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