Letter: Katrina Cole, Friends of Loudoun Mental Health

Editor: This past week’s letter from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services about the crisis at state mental health facilities is very troubling.  There are major hospital staff shortages across the commonwealth, which are causing the five state hospitals to stop all admissions until attrition, either from safe discharges or by even death, decrease the current population to a reasonable level that can be served by staff.

The Friends of Loudoun Mental Health Board of Directors has reviewed the letter and is deeply concerned.  For over 65 years, we have served the residents of Loudoun by providing support to individuals who are affected by mental illness, including, but not limited to, those disabled by their illnesses. We support people who are in treatment with the Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services by educating the public about the need to care for their mental health; the connection between mental and physical health; calling for the end of the stigma associated with mental illness; and, providing financial assistance to individuals who are disabled by their illness  and live at 150% or less of the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines, and are either on Medicaid or have no insurance.  Many of them may be on the verge of homelessness. There are many instances where these individuals are adjusting to a home or facility after having been discharged from a state hospital.

Recovery with a mental illness does not equate to the same as in physical health. In physical health, recovery can mean an end to a disease or condition as a result of various treatments and/or surgeries. Mental illness has no cure.  Medications and therapy teach the individual how to handle their illness so they can return to a previous life, equipped with the tools to be successful. Others will struggle their entire lives with a serious mental illness but are protected and supported by the many psychiatrists, therapists, case managers and psychiatric technicians with whom they come in contact. This is why we need to ensure state hospitals remain open and adequately funded. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the mental health challenges associated with it including isolation, lack of childcare and remote learning, and job instability, we are in the largest mental health crisis this country has ever seen. People were forced to stay in mental hospitals when they were ready to be discharged. Many people who have always perceived themselves as “normal” are dealing with anxiety, depression, social anxiety, fear, and paranoia. Most will be able to eventually get therapy (and medication, if necessary). Others will need deeper therapy and potentially even hospitalization.  State hospitals are where individuals similar to those that Friends’ financial programs support could end up for treatment – these are the individuals without private insurance or are not covered by Medicaid. 

DBHDS stated that there are funds they can use on an emergency basis, but those funds will be depleted by the end of the first quarter of the fiscal year –that means September!  We urge Gov. Northam to call a special session of the General Assembly to formulate and approve an emergency fund to allow DBHDS to give raises to the psychiatrists, nurses, orderlies, technicians, and security who have been dedicated to providing patient care during the pandemic. They also need funding to recruit and train more staff. The state hospitals need to get back to normal capacity as soon as possible. Otherwise, we could quite possibly end up with people with serious mental illness either being homeless or in detention centers because there is no place for them to go to receive treatment. Please consider writing to your State Senator, your Delegate and the Governor asking for immediate attention to shoring up the stability and effectiveness of our state mental health system. The Officers and Directors of Friends of Loudoun Mental Health will be doing the same.

Stand up for our fellow citizens who may not be able to stand up for themselves because it could be one of us or a loved one in this position in the future.

Katrina Cole, President

Friends of Loudoun Mental Health Board of Directors

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