Va. gets (another) mental health wake-up call

November 20, 2013
PeterGaluszka

The tragedy experienced this week by Sen. Creigh Deeds and his family is drawing attention to how Virginia and the rest of the country mistreat the mentally ill by cutting funding for their care and denying them treatment.

Deeds was apparently stabbed by his 24-year-old son, Gus, on Tuesday. Gus, who then shot himself to death, had been given a psychiatric exam the previous day but was released because of an inability to locate a psychiatric bed in remote and rural Bath County.

The elder Deeds, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2009, was airlifted to a hospital in Charlottesville, where he is in fair condition after being treated for stab wounds.

This incident has spurred immediate discussion of Virginia’s attitude regarding the mentally ill – namely, that they are a proper and obvious target for funding cuts when it comes time to squeeze budgets. From 2005 to 2010, according to a report last year by the Treatment Advocacy Center, Virginia eliminated 15 percent of its public psychiatric beds. It has just 17.6 beds per 10,000 people, 40 percent of a target of 50 beds per 10,000 recommended by professionals, according to Sy Mukherjee of ThinkProgress.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell recommended even more cuts last year, according to Mukherjee.

Virginia is not unique in its attitude. States have cut mental health spending so much that the country’s hospitals had only 28 percent of the recommended number of beds in 2010.

These problems are aggravated in  rural areas where a trip to an emergency room, let alone a community mental health center, can involve hours of driving.

In the Deeds case, Gus Deeds had been placed under an emergency custody order that allowed him to be detained for up to four to six hours. Health care officials reportedly tried to find a hospital bed for him but were unable to secure one. According to The Post, the next step could have been a temporary detention order, which could keep him under psychiatric surveillance from 48 to 72 hours. But such an order requires that a bed be available.

According to The Post, the Virginia Office of the State Inspector General last year found that 72 people who met the criteria for involuntary detention were released during one 90-day period because no hospital beds could be found.

What is incredible about the situation is that Virginia got a major wake-up call in 2007 about the inadequacies of its mental health system. Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech with diagnosed mental health problems, slipped through the cracks in the system. He also managed to buy enough guns and ammunition to shoot to death 32 others and wound 17 before turning a gun on himself.

Tuesday’s horror once again shows how politicians with a shallow understanding of mental health illness find it an easy mark for budget cuts. This, coupled with Virginia’s love of firearms, makes for a truly awful mess.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

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