Local advocates gathered at the Downtown Mall community board Monday night to call on the Charlottesville City Council to do more to address mental health needs.
Organized by The People’s Coalition and Brave Souls on Fire, black mental health advocacy groups, the rally aimed to push the council to prioritize the establishment of improved services, including changes to intervention ’emergency.
“We need to advocate for better mental health services and a big part of that is making sure that, for people who are going through a mental health crisis, the care they receive is dignified, empathetic, compassionate and actually helps. instead of harming,” said Myra Anderson, director of Brave Souls on Fire.
Those changes include limiting and eventually eliminating police responding to mental health crises, Anderson said.
While the city council issued a Mental Health Awareness Month proclamation at Monday’s council meeting, activists said it was merely symbolic and the city needed to take action.
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Lawyers called on the city to establish a Marcus Alert System, the framework of which was signed into law by former Governor Ralph Northam in December 2020.
The system is designed to improve services for people in crisis related to mental health, addiction or developmental disabilities. It coordinates the local 911 emergency dispatch center and regional crisis centers and establishes specialized law enforcement responses in behavioral health situations.
The bill is named after Marcus-David Peters, a black man who was shot and killed by Richmond police in 2018 while suffering from a mental health crisis. The city must implement a Marcus Alert program by July 2026.
Advocates are calling on city council to create a formal task force and include members who have experienced mental illness or family members of people with mental illness, mental health organizations and service providers.
“People with lived experience need to be front and center when you’re considering creating any type of formalized group. There needs to be equal representation on both sides of the table and that’s not the case right now,” Anderson said.
“You have to talk to people who have been in the trenches themselves and ask them, ‘What did you wish you had when you went through this crisis?’ That’s part of the conversation I haven’t heard,” Anderson said. “I’m concerned that the voices of those most affected are not being amplified in the planning.”
During the rally, community members shared their experiences with mental health care and observed a moment of silence for those who have failed in the system.
Advocates also recommended the city partner with Albemarle County and existing mental health services to provide better support, create a mental health response system separate from the police, and create a crisis center in Mental Health.
At a recent business session, Sonny Saxton, executive director of the Charlottesville-UVa-Albemarle County Emergency Communications Center, told city council it could be a while before the city receives support. state for a Marcus Alert system.
Saxton said the Charlottesville area isn’t behind with the program, but he said it’s big business with no state support.
“There is no shortage of intentional people about this work. Staffing constraints are there. Our emergency services may not be able to handle the load. These are sizeable orders,” Saxton said.
Anderson said the city could do more to prepare for the Marcus Alert system in the meantime.
“They could get more community input, have community-wide focus groups among people who have experienced mental health, and get information from them,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t take five or six years or state terms. They can engage with the community now.
Anderson said it was important to recognize how marginalized groups, especially black people, are affected by the lack of mental health support. She said it is during the crisis that many black people are incarcerated before they can receive proper mental health support and treatment.
” At least, [the city] should recognize the fact that, for black people, calling in the police in itself can be a very triggering situation,” she said. “You think of all these other cases all over the United States where this happened and it didn’t end well. So I think it will also be imperative to recognize that there needs to be a cultural competency component in any kind of crisis response.