Va. Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) listens to a committee discussing his bills regarding involuntary commitment of mentally ill patients. (JOE MAHONEY/AP)

Virginia state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) returned to work this year with a mission: to reform a mental health system he believes should have saved his son from a horrific fate.

Yet the outpouring of support from colleagues did not keep senators from struggling Thursday with one of his key proposals.

In a meeting Thursday of a mental-health subcommittee in the Virginia Senate, Deeds made a passionate case for his legislation without delving into the personal tragedy he suffered only two months ago.

Twenty-four-year-old Austin “Gus” Deeds attacked his father with a knife and then killed himself hours after being released from psychiatric care because an emergency custody order had expired before a bed could be found for him. The senator is hoping to extend the period of emergency custody to 24 hours from the current four to six.

James L. Agnew, the sheriff in Goochland County, warned that it would strain small law enforcement agencies to watch over mentally ill persons for so long.

“That’s a very real concern,” Deeds said. “But when you’re talking about somebody whose life might be at stake — every one of these situations is life and death. Every single one ... So I would think the time period outweighs the concern about loss of space and loss of working time.”

Describing the difficulty of getting an extension for his son’s emergency custody order in rural Bath County, he said having to go to a magistrate “wastes more precious time ... those seconds might mean life.”

A recent University of Virginia study referenced in the meeting found that 3.4 percent of patients don’t find a bed within six hours. Deeds and other senators who support a 24 hour period argued that it would only be necessary in a small but critical number of cases.

“We’re talking about one person a day, statewide,” Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax).

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, also cautioned that holding a person against his or her will for a full day, especially in a non-therapeutic environment, could create constitutional issues.

“No person who’s mentally ill should be treated as a criminal,” she said after the meeting.

A vote on the extension was postponed for further discussion of the financial and legal impact, as was a vote on proposals from several other senators making it easier to detain a mentally ill person after an emergency custody order has expired.

“I want to pass bills,” subcommittee chairman Thomas A. Garrett (R-Lucia) said. “But if we don’t do this well, they aren’t going to get out the other side of the building.”

Two of Deeds’ proposals have met with unanimous support. A review of the training and qualifications of community services board mental health evaluators has gone to the full Senate for a floor vote. A mandate for the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to offer an electronic database of psychiatric bed availability was passed on to the full Senate Education and Health Committee.

“It’s inexcusable” that the database, in the works for years, has not yet been completed, Deeds told the subcommittee. Officials have said it should be ready by March.

A fourth bill sponsored by Deeds, establishing a joint subcomittee to study mental health services, is currently before the Senate Rules Committee.