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Study: Hospital beds found for most Va. psychiatric patients

Friday - 12/20/2013, 5:35pm  ET

WASHINGTON - A new study on mental health in Virginia finds there is a small gap in services but it can have devastating consequences.

The newly released study shows that in Virginia, 97 percent of the time, a psychiatric bed can be found for a person in need within the legal time limit of six hours. The length of time needed to find a hospital bed is critical because adults under a temporary detention order can walk free after that six-hour window expires, the report says.

The report examined emergency evaluations conducted statewide in April. About 1,400 emergency detention orders are issued a month. And for 3 percent of those cases beds can't be found within the time limit, however beds are found eventually for most patients, according to the study.

Richard Bonnie, director of the University of Virginia's Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, conducted the study. He says the case of Virginia Sen. Creigh Deeds' son is a tragedy, but that it is not the norm.

"Our study suggests that what happened in that case is an aberration in terms of how the system is generally functioning. But of course, you never want that to happen," Bonnie says, calling the case a wakeup call for the state.

Deeds' son, Austin "Gus" Deeds, stabbed the senator multiple times before taking his own life. Gus Deeds was released from an emergency custody order reportedly because a psychiatric bed was not found.

Although not all of the details are known about what led to Deeds' release, Bonnie says the search for a psychiatric bed would have continued.

"Tragedy sometimes calls attention to problems that otherwise wouldn't get the attention that they need. Tragedy creates opportunity and you need to take advantage of the opportunity to make changes," he says.

Following the Virginia Tech massacre, there was a similar call to action and lawmakers responded by promising to invest in the mental health system. However those investments dried up when the recession hit.

Bonnie says now there's a collective re-start to try and fix the system following. Gov. Bob McDonnell recently announced $38 million for mental health initiatives in his proposed two-year budget and Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe supports the funding.

And Thursday Bill Hazel, Virginia's secretary of Health and Human Resources, proposed a series of policy and law changes following an investigation into Deeds' death, including expanding access to services that would reduce the need for hospitalization.

Bonnie says the Virginia General Assembly this session will look at possible changes to the system but he says there is no magic bullet to address other gaps in services.

The report also found that some regions of the state lacked programs to stabilize individuals outside of a hospital. Hospitalizing a patient outside of the region can lengthen the time needed to secure a bed. Clinicians reported that a quarter of involuntary hospitalizations could have been avoided if alternative services had been avoided.

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