The challenges of mental health treatment in Virginia: ‘That helplessness is overwhelming’


HENRICO COUNTY, Va. — Laura May and her daughter Harley have seen firsthand what the shortage of psychiatric beds in Virginia can mean for families.

Harley has been diagnosed with depression and is receiving treatment, but on a couple of occasions, May said they struggled to get Harley access to emergency mental health crisis services at local hospitals.

“She needed help, and we sat for 24 hours in an emergency room waiting, and she was unable to get into a facility,” May said. “As a parent, that helplessness is overwhelming… not being able to get her that help is the scariest feeling.”

“So many thoughts going around in your head, its just sort of chaotic,” Harley said.

As state policymakers continue work to address issues facing access to mental health care in Virginia, a group of private hospitals is making recommendations of their own to improve care for mental health patients. The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association announced a multi-faceted plan to address bed capacity and other issues.

Private hospitals in Virginia take on the lion-share of mental health patients each year, according to statistics provided by the VHHA. Community hospitals admitted 29,278 voluntary patients in 2018 and 20,220 people on temporary detention orders (TDO), the group said. By comparison, state hospitals admitted 5,356 TDO patients in the same year.

Community hospitals have seen a 10.9 increase in voluntary admissions since 2015, VHHA said.

““A combination of factors has contributed to some of the capacity challenges experienced in Virginia including an increase in voluntary psychiatric admissions, a lack of sub-acute levels of care, and behavioral health workforce staffing shortages, among other things,” said Dr. Michael P. McDermott, the President and CEO Mary Washington Healthcare. “Recognizing these conditions, the hospital community is offering a creative set of recommendations to address capacity concerns and adding bed space in our facilities, too.”

VHHA institutions said they are adding 159 new psychiatric beds across Virginia by 2022, but local leaders said adding beds is just one way to address mental health care access in Virginia.

“Just building more highways, or just adding more acute beds isn’t necessarily the answer. You build more highways, hope you have less traffic, that doesn’t happen. You need public transportation,” said Lisa Castro, Director of Behavioral Health Services for Southside Regional Medical Center.

VHHA said they are working with member institutions and the state to create a new Medicaid benefit to cover partial hospitalizations for mental health treatments, address a shortage of mental health workers statewide, improve access to crisis service through practices like telepsychiatry when appropriate, and collaborating with one another to ensure patients have access to the treatments that help their specific condition.

Despite the challenges facing state and private hospitals in Virginia, Harley said she shares her story so that others will not wait to seek help when they experience a mental health crisis.

“I thought this would be a great chance to advocate for people who are like me, struggling,” she said. “You won’t be alone. There are a lot of people out there if you just reach out.”

VHHA said their members plan to continue to work with state officials to improve access to mental health services in Virginia.



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