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Del. Joseph Yost pushes for mental health training for college resident advisers

RICHMOND — An effort to mandate mental health training for resident advisers at Virginia’s public colleges is moving forward in the General Assembly.

A bill by Del. Joseph Yost, R-Pearisburg, would require resident advisers to receive eight hours of mental health first aid training to recognize the signs of mental illness and substance abuse.

Yost’s House Bill 1911 passed the Virginia House of Delegates 98-0 Monday.

The bill grew out of ideas presented by members of the Mental Health Justice Ministry, an offshoot of Blacksburg’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

As a legislator, Yost, whose legislative district includes Virginia Tech and Radford University, has prioritized mental health reform.

“Anytime that we can provide education to the general public on mental health issues is a good thing,” Yost said. “There’s still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding on mental health issues out there.”

College is a stressful time when students face many new experiences, and having trained resident advisers can help identify aberrations sooner, he said.

Nearly one in five college students face a mental health illness and about 75 percent of mental health conditions emerge before age 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Mental Health First Aid is a national nonprofit that developed the training course which the group has taught to nearly 800,000 people in the United States since the organization’s inception in 2001.

The course is designed to teach advisers to recognize warning signs of mental health problems. Those students would then refer students to on-campus counselors or other community resources for additional guidance and treatment.

“We’re not training these kids to diagnose somebody,” Yost said. “We just want them to recognize that ‘hey, he or she, there’s something going on, they might be having a mental health problem.’ ”

A survey by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia showed most of the state’s public universities already include some sort of mental health training, but the content and length varied.

Yost’s bill would standardize the training, though each presentation would differ based on the campus and community resources offered at each school.

Representatives from Virginia Tech, Radford University, Longwood University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia21, a nonpartisan group that lobbies primarily for college-age students, spoke in favor of the bill while it was in committee.

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