Sen. Creigh Deeds and Our Mental Health Crisis

Creigh Deeds and his son. Photo from Eva Russo

Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds was released from the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville on Friday, and upon getting home he tweeted this sad message:

“I am alive so must live. Some wounds won’t heal. Your prayers and your friendship are important to me.”

News cycles move on in an unremitting, relentless motion, with only the worst (or best or most viral) of stories and videos breaking free,  becoming a part of our national conversation. I’m afraid the terrible, tragic story of Sen. Deeds and his family won’t break through this cycle. But we must keep it in our line of sight. Remember it. Pray on it. Shout about it. Because it can’t continue on like this.

Last week Sen. Deeds was believed to be stabbed multiple times in the head and chest by his son, Gus, in an altercation, according to local police. Then Gus, a 24-year-old who friends say suffered from bi-polar disorder, took his own life with a rifle. This followed after Sen. Deeds had reached out to his local community service board, seeking an Emergency Custody Order. His son was taken into custody, but was later released when they couldn’t find a hospital bed or a bed wasn’t found in the legal six-hour time friend, according to news reports.

Virginia’s mental health system is struggling under the weight of those who need help in a state where there is not enough facilities or designated funds to help them. Group homes are being shut down and treatment facilities and hospital beds are more scarce with the idea that waivers will help those in need create community-based support systems. But the waiting list for such waivers can stretch as far as the eye can see, stranding people on it for years.

So what are families in need to do? A friend of mine reached a crisis point with her son a few months back and searched for a hospital that would admit him. For days nothing was available, which led to a dire situation at home. Finally, an opening occurred at a viable psychiatric facility where her child could be treated in a safe and dignified manner. But her child and her family were extremely vulnerable during those days of searching.

Cristy Gallagher, a research director at George Washington University and resident of Northern Virginia, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, in which she detailed the crisis from her family’s personal perspective (Gallagher has an eight-year-old daughter who is bi-polar):

Under Virginia’s Comprehensive Services Act, my family qualifies through Fairfax County for services including home-based therapy, parent training and respite care — weekends when my daughter stays in a therapeutic foster care home to give us time to rest and recuperate from caring for her every day. These services help keep my daughter stable, most of the time.

When she isn’t stable, we have an emergency plan that includes calling the Fairfax Mobile Crisis Unit (which is rarely available, since there is only one), our therapists and, as a last resort, the police. And when needed, we can take her to a hospital and sign her in.

Our ability to direct her care will change three years from now. Once she turns 14, we will be at the mercy of Virginia’s temporary detention order system. Like Austin Deeds’s caregivers, we will have to seek an emergency order from a magistrate when we think hospitalization is in her best interest.

If there are no beds — what then? Will we be able to take care of her on our own?

These are questions that cannot be ignored any longer. Yesterday’s op-ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch stated:

The full story of what happened in Bath County may not emerge for some time, if it ever does. But the suggestion that a lack of sufficient mental-health care might have contributed to the Deeds’ disaster is a grim reminder of how far short the commonwealth has fallen in this regard.

Six years ago, Seung-Hui Cho’s murderous rampage at Virginia Tech put mental-health care at the forefront of Virginia public policy. Officials too numerous to name vowed to improve a system that had let too many disturbed individuals fall through the cracks.

The determination did not last. Two years ago, we wrote in this space about a new “report by the Inspector General for Behavioral Health and Development. It says about 200 mentally ill persons who represented a danger to themselves or others were turned away from psychiatric facilities across the state, in a practice common enough to have its own term: streeting.

“This follows the news in March that mental-health units in Virginia have had to send patients to far-off hospitals elsewhere: One Northern Virginia facility, for example, had to cast as far afield as Petersburg to find beds for patients. The General Assembly provided stopgap funding to keep a shortage of acute-admissions beds for persons in serious crisis from getting worse, but those funds are now running out. That news followed the Kaine administration’s dubious decision to shut down a children’s mental-health hospital in Staunton.”

We do not know how many other families in Virginia have suffered through the torment now afflicting the Deeds family. The state as a whole would not know of the Deeds’ torment, were Creigh Deeds not a state senator. His colleagues in the General Assembly do not bear direct responsibility for his plight. But how many of them can say they gave mental-health treatment so much of their attention that they could have done nothing more to prevent it? Precious few, is our guess.

Now state officials will give the issue the focus it deserves. Let’s hope so. If they do not, then stories like Deeds’ will happen again – and again.

This is a crisis in Virginia, but I’d wager to guess mental health crisis like this are happening in states across the country. As I pray for Sen. Deeds and his family, I also pray for a better way forward. Because we cannot go on like this. And though I don’t have the answers, at least I can try and keep the story in your line of sight.

 

About Dilshad Ali

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