Often, the most important conversations are the ones we struggle to have. As a community, commonwealth and country, we need to start having conversations about mental health, specifically suicide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and in 2017, about 47,173 Americans died by suicide, while an estimated 1.3 million Americans attempted it.
I personally struggled with anxiety and suicidal ideation during my freshman and junior years of college and I saw firsthand how broken our mental healthcare system is. Like many students, I was told I had to wait several weeks to make a counseling appointment. The mental healthcare systems in place for students in the commonwealth are adequate, but they provide no assurance that students will get the proper care and resources they need. In order to provide those students with the best access to needed care, I propose we mirror lifesaving legislation that was passed in New Jersey — have it proposed, voted on and enacted here in the commonwealth.
On Aug. 1, 2016, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed the Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act into law. The law is named after Madison Holleran, a 19-year-old track and field star from Allendale, N.J., who took her life at the University of Pennsylvania in 2014. This legislation mandates that institutions of higher education have individuals with training and experience in mental health issues who focus on reducing student suicides and attempted suicides available on campus or remotely to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The institutions of higher education must also notify students of these available services no later than 15 days after the start of the semester.
This legislation should be considered in the Virginia General Assembly because it is a flexible and affordable safety net that will provide our students with access to the resources and tools they need to get better. The flexibility of the legislation allows colleges and universities to decide how they want to implement the counseling services, which also increases affordability.
I have been a mental health and suicide prevention advocate for two years, and what has surprised me the most has been the overwhelming number of friends, coworkers and strangers who have approached me to explain how suicide has personally affected them.
Once you start talking about suicide, so many people come forward to share their experiences. I believe it is time for us to come together and step out in faith and courage to talk about suicide and mental health. If you would like to follow our progress, please visit our Facebook page, "The Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act in Virginia.”