The reports that Sen. Creigh Deeds has carried – physically and psychologically – since that fateful day 10 years ago driven him to fix the commonwealth’s imperfect mental health system.
This is a work in progress. Successes and failures continue to happen around the state:
A new mental health hospital for children, a rarity across the country, has opened in Norfolk. Police officers receive crisis intervention training to reduce encounters involving the mentally ill.
However, STEP-VA, an initiative to improve behavioral health services in the state’s 40 community service boards, has struggled. “Implementation is challenging, and the actual costs are difficult,” Deeds told me via email.
Deeds took on this role after his son Gus attacked him during a mental health crisis and then took his own life.
All Virginians owe Deeds a debt of gratitude for his unwavering focus born of personal tragedy. We would not have been able to improve mental health services across the state without his tireless efforts.
“In fact, my work on mental health policy has been an important part of my job,” the Charlottesville Democrat told me, “and I hope it will be for as long as I can serve.”
The Washington Post recently reported on Deeds’ Crusade, a decade after the event that has since kicked off his legislative career and made his name synonymous with improving mental health practices in Virginia.
On November 19, 2013, Deeds’ son Gus stabbed him 13 times before shooting himself. Gus Deeds, 24, suffers from bipolar disorder.
The day before the attack, the elder Deeds obtained an emergency custody order for his son to receive treatment. But an officer couldn’t find a psychiatric bed before the six-hour hold was over, and Gus Deeds was sent home with his father.
Sen. Deeds suffered multiple injuries in the attack, and nearly lost his right ear. Immediately, his face and other parts of his body received many injuries.
Thus he became – literally – the face of mental health reform. He chairs the state’s Health Care Commission, which was established in 2021 as a standing panel of the General Assembly. As The Post notes, Deeds seeks to fix the system, bringing attention to problems behind bars, for example, and trying to make it easier for young people to be cared for.
We hear a lot more about the former. Perhaps the worst case in recent years involved the death of Jamycheal Mitchell at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in 2015.
As I wrote at the time, Mitchell was incarcerated for allegedly stealing about $5 worth of junk food from a convenience store. He suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and a judge ordered him to be sent to Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg to be rehabilitated. Administrative snafus prevented the transfer.
Mitchell, 24, died of probable cardiac arrhythmia and wasting syndrome, according to the autopsy. He lost 40 pounds while in prison. A lawsuit by his family, which requires then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s endorsement, settled for $3 million in 2019.
More recently, Irvo Otieno died of asphyxiation in March after Henrico sheriff’s deputies and Central State Hospital employees took turns kneeling on him for nearly 11 minutes while he was admitted to the psychiatric hospital. His family later agreed to an $8.5 million settlement with the state and county sheriff.
Otieno’s relatives said he had a long history of mental health problems. Many people face second-degree murder charges.
Advances in the field of mental health are happening, thankfully. Among the brightest is the fall 2022 dedication of the Children’s Pavilion psychiatric facility at the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk.
Although Deeds did not help develop the center, “his continued advocacy in the field of mental health has been critical to its continued success,” Bryant Thomas, CHKD’s vice president of development, said via email.
The $224 million facility has an annual program cost of $45 million. It has 60 inpatient rooms as well as outpatient mental health services. A CHKD spokesperson said 657 admissions occurred in the first year of operation, and 486 patients admitted to the main hospital also received mental health services in the last fiscal year.
“A lot of people say this hospital is the best in the state,” Deeds said at last year’s dedication, “but I’ve been to a lot of hospitals, and this is the best in the country. .”
“This will be a place where children can get better,” he added, “where hope is restored to families, and where others around the country, and perhaps around the world, are looking for breakthroughs in research. and treatment.”
Barriers to improving mental health care in Virginia remain. The works tell me that the most important need is to increase the workforce. “We have shortages at a critical level for almost every type of professional that provides services to people in need,” the senator said, though he added that the problem is not unique to behavioral health.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a budget deal in September that included $58 million to expand and modernize Virginia’s crisis services system. An additional $10 million establishes mobile crisis services in underserved areas.
Works, however, criticized the administration’s recent announcement to eliminate a deputy commissioner post in the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The Richmond Times-Dispatch said the shakeup was aimed “at implementing ‘Help Help, Now’ reforms” that Youngkin has promised to improve the delivery of services for people facing psychiatric crises or substance use.
However, the move comes as the governor is urging state agencies to set savings of up to 10% of their operating budgets. “There’s nothing wrong with looking for efficiencies,” Deeds said, “but I remain concerned that this administration is not looking for ways to better serve those in need, but is trying to justify more tax cuts.” .”
The works will continue to teach such short-sighted decisions. As he should – and not only in the memory of his son.