Mentally ill persons must be helped in the community rather than left to languish in institutions, mental health representatives recently told members of Northern Virginia's delegation to the General Assembly.

In a briefing to prepare legislators for the upcoming session in Richmond, members of the Mental Health Association of Northern Virginia said uniform services should be provided throughout the state and money should be allotted specifically for the mentally ill rather than distributed among various types of social programs.

"The coordinated system intended has materialized as a patchwork of uncoordinated agencies and entities offering an array of programs aimed at everyone but the chronic mental patient," said James Evey of Pathways to Independence, an affiliate of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. "Denied support, alienated from family and unable to cope with the mental health maze, the chronic patient becomes a creature of the street and, sooner or later, another grim statistic."

"Our business is . . . to work with those mentally ill patients who are unable to receive help because they can't afford it," added Dr. Thomas F. Updike, director of community mental health services for the Virginia Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.

Updike predicted that in the 1980s more than 500,000 such persons will need help. The state currently has the capacity to serve fewer than 50,000 persons, he said.

The issue of mental health is expected to loom large in the legislative session that opens Jan. 9, about the same time the report of an exhaustive two-year study of state mental health services is to be released.

The report, written by the 12-member Bagley Commission, recommends that the state focus its services on individual patients rather than plowing money into institutions.

The commission, named for its chairman, Del. Richard Bagley (D-Hampton), already has drafted a 126-page bill based on its recommendations, including one that patients be prescreened before they are admitted.

"Such a prescreening review cuts hospital admissions by as much as 30 percent," said Del. Mary Marshall (D-Arlington), who served on the commission.

The Bagley Commission, appointed 2 1/2 years ago by the General Assembly, recommended that local mental health agencies be responsible for discharged patients. It also advised that the state Board of Mental Health become a policy-making body and that at least 40 percent of state funds go to community services rather than institutions. Currently, local mental health agencies receive about 30 percent of available state funds, according to the commission.

Legislators who attended the briefing last week, at the Ramada Inn in Tyson's Corner, agreed that mental health issues will be crucial in the next General Assembly session.

"The issue has been growing in importance year after year," said Del. James F. Almand (D-Arlington), who noted that almost every city and county in Virginia now has some sort of mental health services, whereas seven years ago only 40 percent of those jurisdictions had such services.