THERE WAS scant attention paid last month when, in unveiling his $100 billion two-year budget for Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) also laid out a plan for closing Catawba Hospital, an aging state psychiatric facility near Roanoke. The governor’s proposal to shutter the 110-bed hospital is another blow to Virginia’s dysfunctional, uncoordinated and underfunded mental-health system, which, having already lost nearly 80 percent of its psychiatric hospital beds over the past four decades, will now shed even more.
The closure highlights the paucity of robust community-based programs — including housing, treatment and counseling — to step into the breach left by the disappearance of psychiatric hospital beds. One of de-institutionalization’s most toxic legacies, in Virginia and elsewhere, is that local jails are now warehouses for the mentally ill, who often account for a quarter or more of the inmates. Given adequate resources, many might lead productive lives, but jails are ill-equipped to deal with them.
Two tragic deaths in Virginia jails last year cast that problem in a harsh light. In Fairfax County, Natasha McKenna, 37, a mentally ill woman with a young daughter, died after a jail guard shot her repeatedly with a Taser. In Hampton Roads, Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, a mentally ill man arrested for shoplifting $5.05 worth of snacks from a 7-Eleven, wasted away and died in jail even as a judge repeatedly ordered him transferred to a nearby psychiatric hospital, where no beds were available. Ms. McKenna and Mr. Mitchell needed help, not confinement. But where were the programs to help them?
Advocates for the mentally ill have pressed state lawmakers to increase funding for programs that would provide services, many run by local Community Services Boards, that would enable many mentally ill people to cope with their daily lives outside of hospital settings. Often, the response from Richmond has been inadequate — a few million dollars here or there, not enough to buttress a mental-health system in disarray.
The system’s inadequacies were exposed in 2013 by the tragic death of Austin “Gus” Deeds, a mentally ill young man who stabbed and badly wounded his father, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), before killing himself. The attack took place after officials failed to find a hospital bed for the younger Mr. Deeds, though some were available at the time.
The elder Mr. Deeds, who survived the attack with extensive scars, has pressed for reforms ever since and continues to do so through a legislative commission he leads. In November, Mr. Deeds filed a $6 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the state, a local mental-health agency and a mental-health evaluator, meaning the same man who is trying to fix Virginia’s mental-health system is also trying to punish it.
The courts will determine the merits of that suit. In the meantime, it serves as a bitter reminder that, despite some modest reforms, including a long-overdue online registry of available hospital beds, Virginia is a long way from providing adequate and humane services to the mentally ill.