Blacksburg Delegate Joseph Yost carving out niche
The Republican, in his second year in office, has been able to apply his academic work to the mental health issues facing the General Assembly.
Del. Joseph Yost, R-Blacksburg (left) talks with Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, during a House session at the Capitol. Yost is the youngest member of the House, but he is quickly earning a reputation for his expertise in mental health issues.
Del. Joseph Yost, R-Blacksburg, has been pushing for reforms to the mental health system.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
The Ashley Plantation neighborhood, with $400,000-plus homes on a golf course in Botetourt County, contains signs like these along Greenfield Street, because a convicted sex offender’s wife is building a home in the community. The husband, Calvert Anthony Thompson, has a history of sexually assaulting young women but was released from prison in June and has reconciled with his wife of 20 years. ]
Friday, February 22, 2013
RICHMOND — The youngest member of the General Assembly fought to keep his composure as he watched a fellow legislator hoist an assault-style rifle on the floor of the House of Delegates last month.
Del. Joseph Yost, R-Blacksburg, watched quietly as outspoken Del. Joe Morrissey, D-Henrico County, held the unloaded weapon above his shoulder while arguing for legislation that would have banned the sale of assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Morrissey’s bill died later that day, Jan. 17, in a House subcommittee.
“The day that he gave that speech, I was prepared to hop up, like right after him, and just say everything that was going through my mind. And I kept on telling myself, ‘No, you need to sit down. Just take it in,’ ” Yost said weeks later during an interview in his office.
“I went back to my hotel room that night and wrote out my remarks about how I felt, what I wanted to say.”
The next day, Yost rose during the House’s morning hour and let go of what he had bottled up 24 hours earlier.
He spoke of the “deep sadness” he had felt after watching Morrissey’s speech. He recalled being in Blacksburg on April 16, 2007, when a lone gunman went on a rampage that left 32 Virginia Tech students and faculty dead.
He described the desperation he felt when he tried to phone friends near the campus on the morning of the shootings and got nothing but busy signals.
And, he told the House, “I remember standing in line for four hours to view the body of a friend who I lost that day.”
Yost, a Giles County native, was friends with Jarrett Lane, one of the Tech students who died in the campus shootings.
“He sat beside me on the governor’s school bus every day,” Yost said in an interview.
Yost had quietly listened to debates about the need for new gun laws in the aftermath of the December school shootings in Newtown, Conn. And he wondered whether the same degree of passion would be brought to another issue that lurks near the core of such violent crimes.
“Where is the drive to seek solutions to our mental health system?” Yost said on the House floor that day. “To me, the conversation on gun control is nothing more than a political sideshow that, as it has done in the past, will get us sidetracked from the real issue at hand.”
In just his second year in the legislature, the 26-year-old Yost has found an outlet for his growing interest in the complex issue of mental health. It’s an interest sparked by his work as a graduate school research assistant at Radford University and enhanced by a stint as a jail diversion coordinator in the New River Valley.
Now Yost is making his $17,640-a-year office his only job, deciding to leave the jail diversion coordinator job to drill deeper into mental health policy as a legislator. As a freshman delegate, Yost was assigned to the House Education Committee and the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee, panels that deal with school and mental health policy issues.
“People judged Joseph early on in his candidacy based on his age,” said Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, who sits next to Yost on the House floor. “His maturity, the way he looks at these issues, is way beyond his age.”
When Gov. Bob McDonnell announced plans to create a special school safety task force following the Newtown shooting, Yost knew immediately that he wanted to be on it. He contacted members of McDonnell’s administration about his interest and was named to the panel last month.
“I knew there were going to be mental health folks on there,” Yost said. “I think with my background, representing a district that has Virginia Tech in it, I think it was very important to me to help provide that leadership.”
Yost is sponsoring legislation to implement one of the panel’s recommendations. House Bill 2345 would require the state to set up a model “critical incident response” training program for school personnel employees and those providing services to schools.
It also calls for a model policy to establish school threat assessment teams similar to those created at state colleges after the Tech shootings. Yost’s bill passed both houses of the legislature this week.
“He brought his experience in the mental health field with his passion for education,” said Secretary of Education Laura Fornash, one of three McDonnell cabinet secretaries guiding the task force’s work. “I am glad we have Delegate Yost as a resource and know he will be helpful as we continue our work over the next few months.”
Secretary of Health and Human Resources Bill Hazel also commended Yost, saying: “I am especially appreciative of his interest in and desire to address mental health issues.”
Apart from the task force, Yost introduced a bill to extend the duration of temporary detention orders for people with mental illnesses from 48 hours to 72 hours. The bill failed to get out of committee in the House.
He is on a conference committee working to reconcile differences between the House and Senate on a bill to improve coordination between colleges and providers to expand the scope of mental health treatment services available to students. And he has pressed for funding to increase the number of intervention centers that can care for mentally ill people in crisis and keep them from going to jail.
“He’s well-versed and he’s supportive,” said Mira Signer, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia “There are so few champions on mental health issues.”
Signer said Yost will seek input from mental health advocates and “has a good handle on what a potential [policy] change would mean.”
For example, Yost said he appreciates the House’s support for a program that would train school employees to identify signs of mental illness. But it’s equally important for those in crisis to have access to the treatment they need, he said.
“Anytime we can get money for something that’s mental health related, it’s great,” Yost said. “But the problem that you run into is — now that we’ve got all these people out here educated about how to recognize mental health symptoms — if somebody’s maybe having a crisis, how do we help them?
“If you don’t have a place for them to go to, to actually receive the help that they need, what are you actually solving in the long run? Providing education is a great thing, but you also need to have someone on the other end of that being able to help that person so that you hopefully can prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future.”
Yost said his response to Morrissey wasn’t an attempt “to push the issue of guns aside.”
“All of these mass shootings are complex issues, and they’re going to require a complex, overarching solution,” Yost said. “Just concentrating on a single issue, I don’t think, does us any justice. I think mental health issues are an important part of that discussion and it seems like they always take a back seat to a more vibrant and theatrical discussion about guns.”
Morrissey said he doesn’t disagree with Yost.
“I didn’t think he was saying that the gun dispute was a sideshow,” Morrissey said. “I thought he had an excellent point that the mental health, mental illness component needs to be addressed. I couldn’t agree with him more. There was nothing that I said about these horrific assault weapons that is inconsistent with what he said.”
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