Referring to newly passed reforms as “modest,” state Sen. Creigh Deeds said Monday that he plans to keep the pressure on his colleagues to fix Virginia’s long-troubled mental health system.
“My scars aren’t going away,” Deeds (D-Bath) told an audience at the National Press Club on Monday. “Believe me, I’m not done.”
Deeds said he would not take questions about the events of last November, when his son Austin “Gus” Deeds, 24, attacked his father with a knife and then fatally shot himself, after a psychiatric bed could not be found within the legally mandated six-hour limit.
“The issue is much bigger than any one person’s experience,” said Deeds, who ran for governor in 2009.
But he frequently touched on his family’s experience with the state’s mental health system as he discussed the need to end the stigma around mental illness and his determination to push for additional reform.
Deeds spoke of the variation in access to mental health services across the state, especially in poorer, rural areas, where a smaller population and longer driving distances pose unique barriers to care. An inspector general report on his son’s death released last week noted that distance played a role in the delayed arrival of the mental health evaluator who was charged with examining Gus Deeds. The evaluator arrived at Bath Community Hospital three hours after a sheriff’s deputy had brought the young man there for an examination, significantly reducing the time left to find a bed. After Deeds’s death, two hospitals said they had room but were not contacted.
On Monday, the lawmaker was asked to give his opinion about the inspector generals’s findings, in light of the recent resignation of G. Douglas Bevelacqua, the former inspector general for behavioral health and developmental services, amid charges that his superiors had tried to censor the report.
Deeds replied that he was “okay” with the report, and that he had accepted assurances that the inspector general was “only changing adjectives” and that Bevelacqua’s recommendations remained intact.
Bevelacqua said previously that had the state carried out the recommendations his office made in 2012, Nov. 18 might have turned out differently for the Deeds family. Other critics said the report went easy on state health officials.
When asked Monday whether he faulted specific officials, Deeds declined to single out people at the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services in Richmond or the Rockbridge Area Community Services Board in Lexington, which was tasked with finding his son a bed.
“There were people at fault. There were organizations at fault,” he said. “What happened to me . . . could have happened to anyone, but that does not relieve people from responsibility for their actions.”
During the regular session of the General Assembly, Deeds led the way on several reforms, including extending the amount of time allowed to find a psychiatric bed, funding for a real-time online registry of such beds and requiring state mental health facilities to provide a “bed of last resort.” He also secured approval for a four-year in-depth study of the state’s mental health system, which he said would help keep his colleagues focused on the issue.
“I think we changed what we could this year,” he said. “We are going to do more down the road.”