Student group designs bipartisan mental health bill

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.

By Colin Kennedy | Capital News Service

13 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.

Delegate Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, is the chief patron of House Bill 206. But he says 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, if passed, 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 says he considers HB206 a mental health awareness proposal that could help provide students, faculty, and staff the information to 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.”

The group recognized the lack of mental health awareness shortly after MacDonnell and his classmate formed the club last spring. Fed up with the lack of governing in modern politics, he and fellow freshman Jarrod Nagurka sought to create bipartisan legislation that would solve pertinent problems across the community and state.

Now sophomores, the two 19-year-olds are planning a trip to Richmond to speak face-to-face with legislators about their club’s bill.

Their trip to the state capital comes just more than two months after Virginia’s latest high-profile mental health crisis, which involved Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, triggered legislative reaction from the entire General Assembly.

More than 60 mental health bills have been proposed thus far during the 2014 session. Yet MacDonnell says 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 says he thinks the passing of HB206 would show that government still works. He says he is cautiously optimistic that the bill will pass partly because it doesn’t require any state funding and it ultimately makes other funding more effective.

Even though Hope says the General Assembly failed Virginians during the budgeting process after a 2008 mental health reform phase, he says 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.

Club member Ben Rudgley says Legislators of Tomorrow has received some criticism. However, the group elected not to disclose which conservative representative voiced his concern about the bill.

“There was one person who didn’t want to be the co-patron of the bill,” Rudgley said. “But we believe now that was a result of a misunderstanding.”

Several members, including Rudgley, will use their time in Richmond next week to meet with any uncertain legislators and express why this proposal is so important and worthy of bipartisan support.

Delegate Joseph Yost, R-Pearisburg, officially signed on as the co-patron of HB206 this past Thursday, according to his office assistant, but Yost declined to comment.

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.

For now, MacDonnell and Rudgley urge any supporting citizens to call their local representatives and voice their opinion.

“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.”

photo by Phil Roeder

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