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UVa students draft bipartisan mental health bill

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Posted: Sunday, January 19, 2014 7:51 pm | Updated: 10:07 am, Mon Jan 20, 2014.

RICHMOND — Thirteen University of Virginia students have written proposed legislation that would require Virginia’s public universities to create and feature a webpage dedicated solely to mental health resources available to students at each institution.

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, is the chief patron of House Bill 206. But he said Legislators of Tomorrow, the group of UVa students responsible for the initiative, deserves all the attention.

“I can’t take any credit [for] this bill,” Hope said. “They noticed that there is a lack of mental health awareness on college campuses, and they developed what I believe is a common-sense solution.”

The bill also would require incoming students to complete an online learning module, as well as an online assessment to test the students’ understanding of the content.

Club co-founder Patrick MacDonnell said he considers the proposal a way to help provide students, faculty and staff with information that could save lives.

“What we want to come from the bill is to prevent tragedies at colleges and universities,” MacDonnell said. “The [mental health] resources that are [currently] available, for the most part, are relatively good resources. The problem is that nobody knows about them.”

Group members said they recognized what they consider to be a lack of mental health awareness shortly after MacDonnell and his classmate formed the club last spring. Fed up with what they see as a lack of governing in modern politics, he and fellow UVa student Jarrod Nagurka set out to create bipartisan legislation that would solve pertinent problems across the community and state.

Now second-year students, the two 19-year-olds are planning a trip to Richmond this week to speak with legislators about the bill.

Their trip comes about two months after Virginia’s latest high-profile mental health crisis, in which the son of Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, stabbed him multiple times before killing himself.

The incident triggered a wave of legislative reaction from the General Assembly. More than 60 mental health bills have been proposed thus far during the 2014 session. Yet MacDonnell said he thinks HB206, which was brought to Hope before the Deeds incident, is a “no-brainer.”

“There certainly has not been any strong opposition,” MacDonnell said. “The vast majority of what we’ve gotten back from members of the General Assembly has been very positive.”

At a time when just 13 percent of people approve of the job Congress is doing, MacDonnell said he thinks passing the bill would show that government still works. He said he is cautiously optimistic that the measure will pass, partly because it doesn’t require any state funding and it ultimately makes other funding more effective.

Even though Hope said the General Assembly failed Virginians during the budgeting process after a 2008 mental health reform phase, he said he thinks HB206 is a step in the right direction.

“We should be devoting the majority of our resources toward prevention because we know that, for people with serious mental illnesses, treatment works,” he said. “We just need to apply it in the right places and not wait for a crisis.”

Colleges and universities are the ideal place to apply such preventative services, Hope said, and he deems the proposed legislation a bipartisan solution to a truly nonpartisan issue.

Several members of the UVa club will use their time in Richmond this week to meet with any uncertain legislators and express why they think the proposal is worthy of bipartisan support.

Del. Joseph Yost, R-Pearisburg, officially signed on as the co-patron of HB206 last week, according to his office assistant. Yost declined to comment for this story.

Though a date has not been set, the bill is scheduled to be heard by the mental health subcommittee of the Courts of Justice Committee before the session ends.

 “People should call their delegates,” MacDonnell said. “The best way we can make sure that this bill will pass is by getting everyone involved. We can’t do it alone. [People] can make a difference.”

 Capital News Service serves Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets. It is staffed by students of the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.

 

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