The scars Senator Creigh Deeds has carried – both physical and psychological – since that terrible day ten years ago have prompted him to overhaul the Commonwealth’s flawed mental health system.
It’s a work in progress. Successes and setbacks continue to occur across the state:
A new psychiatric hospital for children opened in Norfolk, a rarity across the country. Police officers have received crisis intervention training to de-escalate encounters involving the mentally ill.
However, STEP-VA, an initiative to improve behavioral health services across the state’s 40 community-based agencies, has struggled. “Implementation was challenging and actual costs were elusive,” Deeds told me by email.
Deeds took on this role after his son, Gus, attacked him during a mental health crisis and subsequently committed suicide.
All Virginians owe a debt of gratitude to Deed for his unwavering focus, born of personal tragedy. Without his continued efforts, we would not have come this far in boosting mental health care across the state.
“Certainly, my mental health policy work has become a significant part of my workload,” the Charlottesville Democrat told me, “and I expect that will continue as long as I am able to serve.”
The Washington Post recently reported on Deeds’ crusade, a decade after the event that has since shaped his legislative career and made his name synonymous with overhauling Virginia’s mental health practices.
On November 19, 2013, Deeds’ son, Gus, stabbed him thirteen times before fatally shooting himself. Gus Deeds, 24, suffered from bipolar disorder.
The day before the attack, the elder Deed had received an emergency order to get his son treated. But an official couldn’t find a psychiatric bed before the six-hour waiting period expired, and Gus Deeds was sent home with his father.
Senator Deeds suffered numerous injuries in the attack and nearly lost his right ear. In the immediate aftermath, his face and other parts of his body bore numerous scars.
Thus, he became – quite literally – the face of mental health reform. He is chairman of the State Commission on Behavioral Health, established in 2021 as a permanent panel of the General Assembly. As The Post noted, Deed has tried to overhaul the system, such as highlighting problems behind bars and trying to make it easier for young people to receive care.
We still hear too much about the first. 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 jailed for allegedly stealing about $5 worth of junk food from a convenience store. He suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and a judge ordered that he be sent to Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg to be reinstated. Administrative snafus prevented the transfer.
Mitchell, 24, died probable cardiac arrhythmias and wasting syndrome, according to an autopsy. He had lost about 40 pounds in prison. A lawsuit by his family, which required the government of the day. Ralph Northam’s endorsement was settled in 2019 for $3 million.
More recently, Irvo Otieno died in March of asphyxiation 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. Several people are charged with second-degree murder at death.
Fortunately, progress has been made in the field of mental health care. One of the brightest was the fall 2022 dedication of the Psychiatric institution Children’s pavilion at the King’s Daughters Children’s Hospital in Norfolk.
Although Deeds did not contribute to the center’s development, “his continued advocacy in the mental health community will be essential to its continued success,” Bryant Thomas, CHKD’s vice president of advancement, said by email.
The $224 million facility has annual program costs of $45 million. It has 60 inpatient rooms and outpatient mental health services. A spokesperson for CHKD said there were 657 admissions in the first year of operations, and 486 patients admitted to the main hospital also received mental health care in the last fiscal year.
“There’s a lot of talk that this hospital is going to be the best in the state,” Deeds said at the dedication last year, “but I’ve been to a number of hospitals and it’s going to be the best in the country. .”
“This will be a place where children get better,” he added, “where hope is restored for families, and where others across the country, and likely around the world, look to advances in research and treatment.”
Obstacles remain to improving mental health care in Virginia. Deed told me that the main need is to increase the workforce. “We have shortages at critical levels for almost every type of professional who provides services to people in need,” the senator said, although he added that the problem is not unique to behavioral health.
Governor Glenn Youngkin signed a budget agreement in September that includes $58 million to expand and modernize Virginia’s crisis services system. An additional $10 million will be used to set up mobile crisis services in disadvantaged areas.
However, Deed criticized the recent announcement by eliminating administration a post of deputy commissioner in the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The Richmond Times-Dispatch said the shakeup is aimed at “implementing the ‘Right Help, Right Now’ reforms” promised by Youngkin to improve services for people dealing with mental health crises or substance abuse.
However, the move comes as the governor is pushing state agencies to earmark savings of up to 10% in their operating budgets. “There is certainly nothing wrong with seeking efficiencies,” Deeds said, “but I remain concerned that this administration is not looking for ways to better serve those in need, but rather trying to justify further tax cuts.”
Actions will continue to point to such short-sighted decisions. As it should be – and not just in memory of his son.
The lives of Virginians depend on Deeds’ candor and guidance.
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