Peter’s Take: Mental Health is Community Health

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

One in five adults in the United States experiences a mental illness or mental health crisis every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages ten to thirty-four.

Arlington is not exempt. Virginia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services estimates any as one in twenty Arlington County adults have a serious mental illness in which their symptoms seriously impair adult functioning.

Treatment works — if you can get it — but too often mental health care is in short supply or inadequate.

Psychiatric bed supply

There is a shortage of available beds in Virginia’s state hospitals and the psychiatric units of other hospitals statewide. The bed shortage in state hospitals is documented here. The state hospitals’ mandated role is to provide a bed of last resort in times of crisis when no beds are available in private hospitals. State hospitals currently are unable to fulfill their mandated role.

A less known fact is the shortage of psychiatric beds in private hospitals, such as Virginia Hospital Center (VHC). This in turn exacerbates the shortage of beds in state psychiatric hospitals. For many Arlingtonians in crisis — particularly those with suicidal tendencies, VHC is the first place to look for help, and too often there is simply no bed available.

This critical supply problem is finally being addressed as part of VHC’s current $250 million expansion. Public outcry following VHC’s initial decision not to seek additional beds for its psychiatric unit has developed into a landmark partnership.

In 2018, an agreement was reached among a group including VHC, Arlington County government leaders, mental health advocates, and the Arlington Community Services Board. The agreement gave VHC access to a county-owned land parcel adjacent to VHC. In the agreement, VHC committed to specific improvements in its psychiatric services and to regular planning meetings.

So far, this process has worked effectively.

The first concrete step forward came this June. An analysis based on the number of people who did not get a VHC psychiatric bed provided a conservative estimate of the total number of beds needed. The group notified the County Manager that VHC will apply to the state for 16 new beds to add to the current 18 bed unit.

This substantial increase in the number of beds is critical to meet the mental health needs of Arlington County’s growing population and to meet VHC’s goal of increased single beds. The increase will reduce the number of patients in mental health crisis desperate for care who must go out of the region, far away from their supportive network of family and friends.

Excellent therapeutic environment

The next step is to ensure VHC’s renovated psychiatric unit provides a therapeutic environment on par with the rest of the hospital. The unit will be gutted, expanded, and redesigned to include single rooms, updated materials, and an integrated courtyard. But discussions continue about how to enhance natural lighting, ensure an adequate number of rooms with single beds, and other issues.

There are two additional important commitments that need to be addressed. VHC committed to a re-design of the Emergency Department to provide better services for patients experiencing a psychiatric crisis.

VHC also committed to an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) for psychiatric cases. The IOP will provide a coordinated continuum of care among Arlington County Behavioral Health Services, the hospital, and patients in early stages of recovery. Without such treatment, the result is often stunted recoveries, repeated hospitalizations, substance abuse, jail, homelessness, or death.

VHC’s progress in psychiatric care comes at a pivotal time. VHC’s president and CEO is retiring after more than twenty years. He has brought the hospital to a level of national excellence. As VHC’s leadership now changes, Arlington’s mental health advocates hope progress continues.


To ensure tangible progress toward greater community health, please reach out now. To ensure help when you or a family member needs it, please reach out now.

Let the County Manager and VHC Board Chair know we are counting on them to ensure VHC continues to deliver on its mental health commitments.


Mark Schwartz
[email protected]

Maryanne Boster
Director of Corporate Communications
[email protected]
Subject line: VHC Board Chair Russell McWey

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC, a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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