Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent commitment to increase funding for Virginia’s behavioral health system is an important step in addressing the state’s mental health inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, said Keith Renshaw, psychology professor at George Mason University.
“The pandemic has highlighted the massive need and inequities in access when it comes to mental health care,” said Renshaw, chair of the Psychology Department in Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “The issue of access to mental health care services and programs is beyond critical, so this type of investment is significant. Hopefully, this kind of injection of funds will lead to hiring and funding of mental health staff and facilities to help more people who are in serious need of care.”
Northam announced on Wednesday a $485 million funding commitment addressing pressing challenges in Virginia’s behavioral health system. The plan includes targeted investment in the state’s mental health services, substance abuse treatment and prevention programs, hospital staffing and community-based services.
Renshaw said that mental health services in Virginia were already strained before the COVID-19 pandemic and that the need for services has increased significantly due to the global health crisis.
“The pandemic forced so many people into isolation and led to interpersonal disruption, which then led to an increased need for mental health services,” said Renshaw. “In addition, people who weren’t in isolation, such as essential workers, were under extreme stress, which also exacerbated mental health issues. What we have ended up with is a crisis situation for so many people, and not enough capacity in mental health services to help them out.”
Renshaw said that psychiatric institutions are chronically underfunded and often struggle to meet the needs of the community. He said he hoped the additional funding would help.
Renshaw also said that the opioid crisis is at a critical point. A looming issue, said Renshaw, is the need to provide more mental health and substance abuse treatment services in rural areas. Renshaw added that he hoped we learned from the pandemic that some of those services can be provided through telework care.
In addition, Renshaw noted the importance of providing “scalable services to the community at large.”
“For many people, mental health needs can be addressed in a fairly short time period using low level intervention,” said Renshaw. “We should invest in systems that allow for scalable models, so that people who need a short amount of treatment can get it, and those people who need more intervention can be referred to a specialized clinician who meets their needs.”
In addition to chairing the psychology department, Renshaw is founder and director of Mason's Military, Veterans, & Families Initiative. He received his PhD in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2003. He was an assistant professor at the University of Utah between 2005 and 2009 before joining the faculty at Mason.
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About George Mason
George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 39,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility. Learn more at gmu.edu