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Three Years After the Deeds Tragedy, Lawmakers Call for Change.

AP Photo / Evan Vucci

It’s been three years since the son of state Senator Creigh Deeds attacked his father with a knife – then took his own life with a gun.  Gus Deeds was mentally ill, but his local community service board claimed no treatment centers had a place for him.  Now, a commission chaired by Senator Deeds and Delegate Rob Bell is preparing to make recommendations for reform. 

In part one of this five-part series, Sandy Hausman looks at what has already changed and what reforms will come up when the General Assembly meets next month.

Serious cases of depression and suicide are on the rise in Virginia, as is the abuse of heroin and opioid drugs.

That doesn’t surprise Stacy Gill. She’s with the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, an agency that addresses mental illness and drug abuse.

“Our world is changing at such a rapid pace that it’s hard to know how to handle everything that comes at a person. We’ve had a really rough economy that we’re just kind of coming out of now, but when you couple that with depression or other mental health issues, it can unfortunately result in suicide.”

That’s why, with a million dollar grant from the federal government, her agency has overseen a two year planning process to reform the way Virginia treats mental illness and substance abuse. 

Top of the list – a guarantee of same day service for anyone who comes into a mental health clinic.

“The idea is that they get an assessment that day.  They don’t get an appointment two weeks or four weeks or even six weeks away.”

Already, she says, the state assures a place where someone in the midst of a mental health crisis can go for care.  After the death of Gus Deeds, Virginia passed a law requiring state hospitals to serve as a last resort.

“That’s really pushed the limits of our state facilities.  They’re full most of the time.” 

Nationally, on average, states spend about 23% of their mental health care and substance abuse budgets on hospitals, but in Virginia we’re spending 46%.  

"We've got people waiting in hospitals right now who are ready to go home, but they've got nowhere to go. So often with mental illness, you alienate the people closest to you."

If we invested more in preventive services at the community level – counseling and other forms of support – Gill believes that would change.

“You can decrease the number of people in crisis, because if they’re getting what they need in their communities, they’re less likely to need a hospital bed.”

The state is also in urgent need of permanent housing for those who are mentally ill, and Senator Deeds says there will be a bill to fund supportive, long-term residences for those with psychiatric problems.

Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness by Pete Earley

“We’ve got people waiting in hospitals right now who are ready to go home, but they’ve got nowhere to go.  So often with mental illness, you alienate the people closest to you.”

The challenge, he says, is to find funding for new services at a time when state revenues have fallen short.

“We’re going to need more money.  We’re going to probably need a significant amount of new money.  Can we justify it?  Absolutely.  Can we find it?  It’s going to be difficult.”

On the other hand, Deeds says, mental health is a bi-partisan issue – something every politician should get behind.

“Y’know mental illness -- it's a predicament that affects just about every family in some form or another."

The governor’s proposed budget contains over $2 million for permanent supportive housing where people with mental illness could live, and additional funding for other services, but of course there is no guarantee that lawmakers will approve that budget, and no assurance the funds will be available long-term. 

Fairfax County resident Pete Earley is author of Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.  He wrote the book after his son was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. 

“You know after Virginia Tech we passed $42 million in new funds for these kind of programs, and then two years later we cut $50 million from that same budget.”

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.