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Law requires mental health training for school counselors

RICHMOND, Va. — More than 20 percent of children in the U.S. have or have had depression or other serious mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Soon, school counselors in Virginia will be in a better position to help identify students with such problems. Beginning July 1, a new state law will require school counselors to receive more training in the recognition of mental health disorders and behavioral distress.

“Mental health can get better with intervention. Without identifying it, it will only get worse,” said Dr. Donna Dockery, the director of clinical practice in the counseling and special education department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Senate Bill 1117 was sponsored by two Democrats from Northern Virginia – Sen. Jeremy McPike of Prince William County and Del. Vivian Watts of Fairfax County. It states that anyone “seeking initial licensure or renewal of a license with an endorsement as a school counselor shall complete training in the recognition of mental health disorder and behavioral distress, including depression, trauma, violence, youth suicide, and substance abuse.”

The law strengthens the Virginia Department of Education’s existing regulations for school counselors. Dockery said it’s important that counselors be able to recognize the signs of mental illness.

“We treat the physical pain; let’s treat the mental pain,” she said.

Dockery said young people today often have a lot of anxiety and must deal with traumatic events. With the help of counselors and families recognizing these situations, students can get the help they need.

McPike’s legislative assistant, Devin Cabot, said that under the new law, the state will establish guidelines for the mental health training that school counselors must complete.

“We are very focused on the new trends of bullying and teen suicide,” Cabot said.

In the past, Cabot said, school counselors in different school districts might have received different training. McPike’s legislation will provide a more uniform approach, she said.

Local school officials are taking measures to educate themselves about the new law.

Chris Whitley is the public information officer for Hanover County Public Schools. Hanover school officials are waiting on guidance from the Virginia Department of Education before moving forward, Whitley said.

School districts will be affected by more than a dozen bills that were approved by the General Assembly during its 2017 session and signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

The Virginia Department of Education is working to ensure that school divisions are aware of the new laws.

By Will Thomas with VCU Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.