To: The West Virginia State House, The West Virginia State Senate, and Governor Jim Justice

West Virginia's Children Need Access to Community-based Mental Health Care

West Virginia’s youth mental healthcare is in crisis. To fix this problem, we must create a comprehensive plan to expand and improve mental and behavioral health care and family services. West Virginia must develop a coordinated network of community-based mental services to reduce the number of children institutionalized in facilities because so few community treatment alternatives exist. And State leaders must also ensure that these service are available state-wide, and easily accessible to all young people and their families.

Why is this important?

My name is Gary and I am starting this petition because I have seen too many of West Virginia’s children fall through the cracks. As a clinical social worker in a public school, I work with students and families who are struggling on a daily basis. In my school, like many West Virginia schools, I encounter students who live in households facing poverty, substance abuse and family breakdown. My students experience toxic stress and trauma that affect their mental and emotional health. When I try to connect my students and their families to community-based mental health services, I find that these services are not available or that my students’ families cannot access existing programs because of long waiting lists for appointments, unreliable transportation or inability to pay. We must do better.

Because community-based mental health services are not available in most of West Virginia’s communities, state agencies often troublingly advise parents to file court petitions against their own children in order to get help.. As a result, desperate families seeking help from the court system oftentimes see their child removed from their home and institutionalized in a juvenile facility. A recent U.S. Department of Justice investigation found that West Virginia’s overreliance on institutions causes significant harm to children and their families.

Although West Virginia invests very little in community-based mental health services, the state spends millions of tax dollars a year to operate hundreds of beds in private juvenile institutions. A year of residential treatment for one child costs our state as much as $120,000, money that could be used much more successfully in the child’s community to provide psychotherapy and counseling services, intensive outpatient services, crisis stabilization, school-based services, prevention and early intervention. By comparison, a child could see a psychotherapist 5 days a week in their own community for an entire year and it would cost $26,000, nearly $100,000 less than locking up a child in a facility.

West Virginia should plan and develop a strong coordinated network of mental and behavioral health care services to reduce the number of children struggling with long-term mental illness. The state must create a comprehensive plan to ensure that those children who are coping with mental health conditions or behavioral disorders are identified early, and have a continuum of care to meet their needs. We need to ensure that families have the resources and support they need to help them navigate raising a child with mental health challenges.

As a state, we are paying too much of our limited tax dollars on the back end of the problem. Unsurprisingly, we are experiencing poor outcomes as a result and wasting money on expensive and ineffective methods. Shifting services from institutions back into the community, closer to family, into the school, and earlier in the process would not only save money but will help young people successfully cope with mental health challenges. We must give schools the necessary resources and tools to ensure that children with mental health conditions are able to get a quality education, and ensure that courts utilize community-based alternatives rather than out-of-home placement for at-risk youth. This will have the ripple effect of making healthier and happier friends, classmates and neighbors.

Please join me in signing this petition.