Former Charlottesville mayor and candidate for the 54th District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates Dave Norris has unveiled a plan to reform the commonwealth’s mental health care system, including a “Virginia Community Mental Health Corps” and “mental health magistrates.”
Mental health has become a hot topic in the election cycle this year, as many point to it as one cause of the recent rise in gun violence in the Charlottesville area. Norris’ campaign event also comes weeks after a man was killed at a Virginia mental health hospital.
“Virginia’s mental health system is indeed broken,” Norris told The Daily Progress on Tuesday. “Too many families, including my own, have been devastated by its failures and shortcomings.”
Norris said the mental health care system had been deteriorating for a long time, though he praised the work of Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds and others to expand access to psychiatric care. One issue he specified was the lack of preventative care.
“The system sits back and waits for them to fall into crisis before they intervene,” Norris said.
He proposed what he called a “Virginia Community Mental Health Corps” to provide culturally competent care for people experiencing symptoms of mental illness.
“Through this Virginia Community Mental Health Corps, a legion of trained mental health support workers, including peer support specialists, teen mental health specialists and a robust network of clinicians of color, who will be placed in our schools, our shelters, our neighborhoods, our clinics to connect people with the mental health services and supports that they need,” Norris said.
Norris said he also wanted to lower the standard for admitting someone into care.
“If someone is severely incapacitated by mental illness to where they cannot fend for themselves, and are vulnerable to malevolent actors, we shouldn’t force them to descend into suicidal or homicidal ideation before they get help,” Norris said.
Norris described a woman he met while he was the executive director of PACEM, a group that provides emergency shelter and services to unhoused people. The woman was experiencing psychosis and living in a car, Norris said, but the group was told she couldn’t be admitted to a psychiatric facility because she wasn’t threatening to harm herself or others.
“That woman had no business being out here on the streets of Charlottesville, living in a car,” Norris said.
Norris on Tuesday also outlined his plan for “Virginia mental health magistrates,” which would ensure that mental health professionals, rather than law enforcement, issue emergency custody orders. He said he wanted to introduce “crisis response and recovery centers” to divert people away from hospitalization, institutionalization and incarceration when possible.
He called for increased investment in violence prevention strategies, including neighborhood groups such as Charlottesville’s B.U.C.K. Squad and domestic violence organizations.
“We have investment in violence prevention services and strategies to reduce the devastating and destabilizing trauma caused by the cycle of violence in our homes and communities,” Norris said.
Housing has been a cornerstone of Norris’s political and professional careers. Norris is currently the manager of the Financial Opportunity Center + Housing Hub at the Piedmont Housing Alliance, a nonprofit group based in Albemarle County that provides housing, counseling, community development and management services to low-income communities.
He said he saw housing as part of the solution to Virginia’s mental health crisis and has advocated for increasing the size of the Virginia Housing Trust Fund.
“Permanent supportive housing is a proven strategy for keeping our most vulnerable neighbors stably housed and improving their quality of life, while in many cases significantly lowering costs to taxpayers,” Norris said.
If Norris is elected, accomplishing his proposed mental health care reforms could be difficult in a Republican-controlled House.
“Mental health reform should not and must not be a partisan issue. If we institute these kinds of reforms, these are not only reforms that improve people’s lives but in the long run actually save taxpayer dollars,” Norris said.
Norris is running for the 54th District seat against Albemarle County School Board Chair Katrina Callsen and former Police Civilian Oversight Board Member Bellamy Brown – all Democrats. The Democratic primary will be June 20.
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