State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds on Thursday renewed his bid for lasting reform of the mental health system that he says failed his son in November.
“We’re going to remake the system,” Deeds said. “We’re going to have a model for the rest of the country in Virginia for the provision of mental health care.”
What shape those changes might take, he said, is unclear, but legislation passed this session addressing issues that emerged in his son’s case are just the first steps.
This year’s bills were “simple,” Deeds said, but helped close gaps that put vulnerable Virginians at risk. The Bath County Democrat’s remarks drew applause from dozens of local mental health workers, emergency services providers and community members gathered at a town hall meeting sponsored by the Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition.
The group of 15 nonprofits and representatives from both local hospitals formed in 2009 to begin the work Deeds pledged Thursday to carry forward: providing better care to more people without leaving anyone in need underserved.
“It was just five years ago that the conference room in the Charlottesville Free Clinic was filled to capacity as we discussed what to do about the increased demand and decreased resources for mental health services in our community,” said Erika Viccellio, a coalition member and executive director of the free clinic.
Viccellio praised Deeds for moving forward while healing from physical wounds and grieving the loss of his son, Austin C. “Gus” Deeds, 24, who stabbed his father 13 times before fatally shooting himself at the family’s Millboro home. Gus Deeds was released from an emergency custody order 13 hours earlier after the clinician tasked with finding him further court-ordered treatment failed to secure an appropriate psychiatric bed before time ran out.
“In a time when other people would have taken a break, or just checked out, Sen. Deeds redoubled his efforts,” Viccellio said.
Deeds since has filed a notice preserving his right to sue the Rockbridge Area Community Services Board tasked with evaluating his son Nov. 18. Communication breakdowns resulting in costly delays, a lack of protocols, barriers to finding care and missteps by the senior clinician all factored into the tragic outcome, according to a report issued in March by the state inspector general.
An omnibus mental health bill Deeds spearheaded targeted these issues, extending the amount of time clinicians have to evaluate someone in crisis from six hours to eight and the length of stay for a patient determined to meet the criteria for a temporary detention order for further treatment from 48 hours to 72.
The legislation directed the state agency licensing emergency services providers to study clinicians’ qualifications and also requires state facilities to admit patients who qualify for further court-ordered treatment, if a suitable private bed cannot be found before time runs out. Clinicians previously were discouraged from turning to state facilities, which have limited capacity. Both of those elements factored in Gus Deeds’ case.
“This was informed not just by my situation, but by emergency room doctors we talked to all over the place,” Deeds said. “As Virginians, we should not be satisfied to have excellence in some parts of the state and total inadequacy in other parts.”
The overburdened system has lurched from crisis to crisis with inconsistent funding, Deeds said, but the challenges are overshadowed by the responsibility mental health workers have to care for those in need.
“We have no adequate response. We can blame it on a lack of funding,” he said. “There’s never going to be enough money to do everything we want to do no matter what it is [and] that’s no excuse for negligence; that’s no excuse for a failure to respond in an emergency situation.”
The executive director of the Charlottesville-area Community Services Board said he stood by everything Deeds said.
“I feel lots of mixed emotions standing here with Sen. Creigh Deeds,” said Robert Johnson, of Region Ten. “In my estimation this system has to change dramatically.”
Changes already underway as a result of Deeds’ legislation have made a positive impact, Johnson said, but further reforms should emphasize prevention and treatment.
“We need to move beyond just being a crisis response industry,” Johnson said.
Eliza Elijah, of Charlottesville, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, said she came to Thursday’s meeting to tell Deeds that open dialogue on mental illness in the wake of his tragedy helped her live against the grain of social stigma.
“It was kind of freeing to hear everything put out there like that,” she said, “because that’s when I decided to stop being ashamed and walking with my head down.”