Henrico CARES signals ‘call to action’ to strengthen youth mental health services

Plan focuses on service access, coordination, navigation in schools, community

With children and teenagers struggling more than ever with depression, sadness and hopelessness, Henrico County and Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) are implementing a plan to strengthen access to high-quality mental health services by making them more available in schools and expanding efforts focused on prevention, support, and early and intensive intervention.

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The Henrico CARES plan will create an enhanced system of mental health care for youth and their families that includes school-based, private and public providers and adapts as a person’s needs evolve. In the name, CARES stands for Coordination; Access to prevention and Responsive Early and intensive interventions; Systems navigation.

Youth mental health is a growing concern both nationally and locally. HCPS has seen a 42% increase in suicide-risk screenings completed by its school-based mental health providers in the past three years.

“Henrico CARES is our call to action,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Tyrone E. Nelson, of the Varina District. “We recognized a need to modernize and strengthen our youth mental health services once the Henrico Youth Violence Prevention Committee started its work in late 2021. An issue this complex and important requires buy-in from all stakeholders, and we’ve got it. The Board of Supervisors and county administration are especially grateful for the close partnership of the School Board and Superintendent Amy Cashwell’s team. By working together and with community providers, faith leaders and others, we can ensure that our young people and their families will have the mental health support they need.”

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Board of Supervisors Chairman Tyrone Nelson

“In the face of the deepening mental health struggles gripping our youth, urgent action is imperative,” said School Board Chair Alicia Atkins, of the Varina District. “This coordinated, collaborative effort amplifies our abilities to assist and empower families in accessing services, navigating care systems and paving the way for healthy and resilient futures for our children. A partnership of this magnitude, bringing together all school-based mental health and county mental health experts and with the resources of countless private care providers and community support systems, transcends anything witnessed in Virginia thus far and underscores Henrico County’s commitment to innovation and compassionate service to families.”

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School Board Chair Alicia Atkins

Henrico CARES was developed over the past seven months by a steering committee that includes representatives of Henrico Area Mental Health & Developmental Services (MHDS); HCPS; community and private mental health care providers; psychiatric, pediatric and primary care providers; higher education; and families with experience navigating the youth mental health care system.

The plan is recommended to be implemented in phases and fully funded after five years. Henrico’s costs would start at $1.8 million in fiscal year 2024-25 and would increase incrementally to $5 million in fiscal year 2028-29. The county’s investment would total $17.8 million during that period.

Among its recommendations, Henrico CARES would include:

  • A partnership with community and private mental health care providers to offer mental health care and services at schools;
  • An increase of HCPS school-based mental health providers;
  • No-cost, short-term mental health teletherapy that middle and high school students can access at home or school;
  • Support for qualifying HCPS staff to work toward licensure as professional counselors or clinical social workers;
  • Increased clinical staffing to expand access to parent-child interaction therapy;
  • Increased early and intensive interventions for mental health, substance use and youth violence;
  • Expanded curriculum and training to strengthen mental health literacy among students, staff, parents and caregivers;
  • A screening program for early identification of students who may need additional social, emotional and mental health care support;
  • Enhanced coordination and information-sharing among school-based staff and private or community providers;
  • A virtual mental health care coordination service that offers a federal- and state-compliant referral system; 24/7 access to a live, multilingual care coordinator and a self-service tool to find verified providers; and
  • No-cost treatment and support for students who are without an existing mental health care provider and have been discharged from an inpatient or residential treatment program.
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Henrico CARES complements other local efforts to support the health, safety and well-being of youth. Henrico and HCPS established a grant-supported pilot program that placed a clinician and a family support partner on one school campus to provide intensive mental health interventions and support to students in collaboration with school-based providers. For all grades and schools, HCPS also is purchasing curricula that focuses on reducing substance use and violence and increasing youth mental health literacy. The county partnered with St. Joseph’s Villa and the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to open the first Crisis Receiving Center for youth in central Virginia. Henrico also collaborated with regional partners to hold the second-annual Teen Summit RVA, which was designed to inspire, uplift and celebrate youth through the power of self-affirmation.

In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health, and the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on the Youth Mental Health Crisis.

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Daniel Rigsby, assistant director for clinical services for MHDS

Virginia ranks 48th in the nation in access to youth mental health care, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America. In addition, 38.2% of the state’s youth reported having felt sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks, while 20.5% had seriously considered attempting suicide within the past year and 16.4% had made a plan about how they would attempt suicide, according to the 2021 Virginia Youth Survey.

So far in 2024, MHDS is seeing a 30% increase in youth requesting same-day access to services, with 20% younger than age 10, 7% considered at an elevated risk of suicide and 26% acknowledging substance use.

“Sadly, the national mental health crisis that surged during the COVID-19 pandemic has not waned. It is robbing our youth of their happiness and stunting their potential,” said Daniel Rigsby, assistant director for clinical services for MHDS. “To create a community in which everyone can thrive, we must deliver a comprehensive system of care that puts information and services where they are desperately needed, empowers families and eliminates the stigma of asking for help.”

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Liz Parker, HCPS director of Student Support and Wellness

“Henrico CARES addresses key barriers that limit access to timely mental health care services by reaching our young people where they are,” said Liz Parker, HCPS director of Student Support and Wellness. “It also works to simplify what can often be a complex and overwhelming system for families, schools and providers to navigate. By strengthening our youth mental health care system, we also can reduce unwanted outcomes that are often associated with unaddressed social, emotional and mental health needs of school-aged youth. These include chronic absenteeism, learning disruptions, behavioral challenges that result in disciplinary action, lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates. Henrico CARES is paving the way to a high-quality youth mental health care system that is comprehensive, accessible and equipped for the 21st century.”

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Kenya Sarai, a junior at Varina High School, said Henrico CARES will help youth manage the many stressors they face, including the pressure to succeed, academics, substance use and gun violence.
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