Legislature approves mental health training for Virginia teachers

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly passed a bill that will require full-time teachers to complete mental health awareness training, though some advocates are split on how the training should be implemented.

Del. Kaye Kory, D- Fairfax, sponsored House Bill 74, which incorporated HB 716 and HB 1554. Kory, a former school board member, said teachers and faculty may be better able to understand and help prevent related issues if they are trained properly to recognize signs of mental health problems. The bill requires school boards to adopt and implement policies for the training, which can be completed online. School boards may contract the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, a community services board, a behavioral health authority, a nonprofit organization, or other certified trainer to provide such training. 

Kory said the bill was requested by several teacher groups in last year’s General Assembly. 

“My intention is that the training provides the ability to ask the right questions at the right time,” Kory said via email. “As substance abuse becomes more common in young people, the need for early detection and response becomes more and more clear.”

The intent of the bill is good, said 4th District Richmond City School Board Member Jonathan Young, but there are potential flaws with the online training program..

“It often ends up being nothing more than a check in the box,” he said. “I’m not interested in another check in the box, I’m interested in real mental health training for our teachers.”

Young said teachers need professional development opportunities “to increase their awareness and develop some new skill sets.”

Schools currently offer online training programs with modules tackling cyber security and conflict of interest training, Young said. He said learning about something as important as mental health through a computerized training module may not be effective enough to combat the current mental health crisis. 

Mental health training needs to be scaled up in schools and the solution has to be legitimate, Young said. 

Only 7% of expenditures for mental health go to children under 18, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, an advocacy and education group. Studies show that early intervention might reduce the prevalence of serious mental health cases, according to the organization.

Approximately 130,000 children and adolescents live with a serious mental illness and only 1 out of 5 children get the help that they need,according to the advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children. 

Bruce Cruser, the executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, said the youth suicide rate has gradually increased in the state. He said that usually the people who need mental health services are people that have experienced trauma, for example, any youth that has been abused or lost their parents at a very young age.

The General Assembly also recently passed an amended bill that will allow K-12 students excused absences for mental health issues. The bill gives the Virginia Department of Education until Dec. 31 to establish guidelines for public school districts to grant students excused absences if they are dealing with mental or behavioral health issues.