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Advocates want city to act on mental health crisis response

Local advocates gathered at the Downtown Mall community chalkboard Monday evening to call on the Charlottesville City Council to do more to address mental health needs.

Organized by The People’s Coalition and Brave Souls on Fire, advocacy groups for Black mental health, the rally was to push council to prioritize establishing enhanced services, including emergency response changes.

“We need to advocate for better mental health services and a large portion of that is making sure that, for individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis, the care that they receive is dignified, empathetic, compassionate, and actually helps instead of harms,” said Myra Anderson, director of Brave Souls on Fire.

Those changes include limiting and eventually eliminating police responding to mental health crises, Anderson said.

While City Council issued a Mental Health Awareness month proclamation during Monday’s council meeting, activists said it is simply symbolic and the city needs to take action.

Advocates called on the city to establish a Marcus Alert system, the framework for which was signed into law by former Gov. Ralph Northam in December 2020.

The system is designed to improve services for people in a crisis related to mental health, substance use or a developmental disability. It coordinates the local 911 emergency dispatch center and regional crisis centers and establishes specialized responses from law enforcement in situations related to behavioral health.

The bill was named for Marcus-David Peters, a Black man who was shot and killed by Richmond police in 2018 while having a mental health crisis. The city will be required to implement a Marcus Alert program by July 2026.

The advocates are asking City Council to create a formal work group and include members who have experienced mental illness or family members of people with mental illness, mental health organizations and service providers.

“People with lived experience need to be at the forefront when you think about creating any type of formalized group. There needs to be equal representation on both sides of the table and there’s not right now,” Anderson said.

“You need to talk to people who’ve actually been in the trenches themselves and ask them: ‘What did you wish you would have had when you were experiencing this crisis?’ That is part of the conversation that I haven’t heard,” Anderson said. “I’m worried that the voice of those that have been most affected is not going to be amplified in planning.”

During the rally, community members shared experiences with mental health care and observed a moment of silence for those whom the system failed.

The advocates also recommended the city partner with Albemarle County and existing mental health services to provide greater support, create a mental health response system separate from police and create a mental health crisis center.

At a recent work session, Sonny Saxton, executive director of the Charlottesville-UVa-Albemarle County Emergency Communications Center, told City Council it could take a while before the city receives state support for a Marcus Alert system.

Saxton said the Charlottesville region is not behind with the program but he said it is a large undertaking without state support.

“There’s no lack of people who are intentional about this work. The staffing restraints are there. Our emergency departments may not be able to handle the load. These are tall orders,” Saxton said.

Anderson said that, in the meantime, the city could do more to prepare for the Marcus Alert system.

“They could be getting more input from the community, having focus groups all over the community among people who have experienced mental health and getting information from them,” Anderson said. “That doesn’t take five or six years or state mandates. They can be engaging with the community right now.”

Anderson said it’s important to recognize how marginalized groups, particularly Black people, are affected by lack of mental health support. She said it is during crisis when many Black people are incarcerated before they can receive proper mental health support and treatment.

“At a minimum, [the city] should acknowledge the fact that, for Black individuals, having the police called on them in and of itself can be a very triggering situation,” she said. “You think about all these other cases all over the United States where that has happened and it hasn’t ended well. So I think some acknowledgement that there has to be a cultural competency component in any type of crisis intervention is also going to be imperative.”


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