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Va. faith leaders call for funding crisis centers as alternative to jails

Community leaders called for state legislators to fund crisis receiving centers in Virginia’s 2024 budget. Above, the Virginia House of Delegates. (Steve Helber/AP)

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Pastor Mandy North saying 236 people with mental health issues are taken nightly into custody in Virginia. She said “236 people every single month” are taken into custody. The story incorrectly stated a crisis receiving center planned for Woodbridge would have capacity for 23 recliners; 16 recliners are planned. This article has been corrected.

Hundreds of members of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE), a coalition of religious and community leaders, called on officials to dedicate more funding to crisis receiving centers at a rally Sunday in Herndon.

The Rev. Kristen McBrayer, co-chair of the organization, encouraged the more than 400 attendees at the rally to lobby state legislators in support of a $58 million line item for crisis receiving centers in the Virginia state budget for 2024. The funding proposal has the backing of the state Department of Behavioral Health Commissioner Nelson Smith.

“Send an email. Go to Richmond. Be a part of it,” McBrayer said.

Prince William pushes Virginia to fund community crisis centers amid gaps in mental health staffing

With not enough psychiatric beds to meet demand in Virginia, people experiencing a mental health crisis in many cases do not get treatment until landing in jail or the emergency room.

Advocates in Northern Virginia say the situation is getting worse amid the coronavirus pandemic’s toll, ongoing struggles with addiction and a surge in indexes tracking depression and suicidal ideation.

Under state law, police officers must take custody of people who are suffering from mental illness and showing signs that they might hurt themselves or others. But the shortage of bed space means treatment options are scarce. Many end up in the emergency room; others end up in jail.

One speaker at the rally, Pastor Mandy North of Manassas Church of the Brethren, said that “236 people every single month in Virginia” are taken into custody on mental health grounds and boarded in emergency rooms for more than eight hours. They could be getting better treatment at crisis receiving centers, which would also free up police and hospital beds, speakers said.

Most people who get mental health treatment in Virginia are getting their treatment in jails and prisons, North said, adding, “Let that sit with you for a moment.”

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Prince William County secured nearly $12 million in state, federal and local funds to open its first crisis receiving center next year, speakers said. The facility, in a former big-box store in Woodbridge, Va., will house 16 beds and 16 recliners, allowing mental health professionals to observe people experiencing a mental health crisis for up to 23 hours rather than placing them in jail or a hospital emergency room staffed full time by a police officer.

“When opened, the Woodbridge CRC will save lives,” Pastor Michael Sessoms of Little Union Baptist Church in Dumfries said at the rally.

After this story was published, a Prince William spokeswoman said the county’s plan envisions a total of 16 beds and 16 recliners for adults at the Woodbridge center by 2024.

Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chair Ann Wheeler (D) said the crisis receiving center will need ongoing funding from state and federal sources in addition to the annual $2.7 million provided by the county, which she pledged to maintain. “The importance of supporting our most vulnerable and indigent community cannot be overstated,” she said.

Virginia this summer adopted 988, the three-digit phone number for mental health emergencies, which replaced a longer 800 number. The new hotline is linked to state agencies that can send responders to people in crisis.

Jeffrey C. McKay, the Democratic chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said in a video message to the group that “the statistics are clear: This is one of the most important issues in Fairfax County right now.”

“The stresses that are on kids — there’s never been a more difficult time,” he said. “With gun violence, bullying and social media, we need as many resources on the table to protect and build these kids up.”

Jennifer Wicker, a lobbyist and executive for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, said the demand for mental health services has increased just as “individuals who seek care … are now needing seven to 10 days” of inpatient care, up from one to two days. “We need immediate investment in crisis receiving centers, but we also need long-term investment,” she said.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). As of July 16, you can reach the Lifeline by calling or texting 988. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7 confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they text to 741741.