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Advocate: Mental health not a priority

Wednesday - 11/20/2013, 3:11pm  ET

DEEDSANDSON.jpg
Sen. Creigh Deeds, at right, and his son Gus on a road trip during the senator's 2009 campaign for governor. (AP Photo)

'We treat problems of the mind differently'

Mental-health advocate Pete Earley

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Psychiatric hospital beds dropped 14 percent in five years

CBS News reports

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Steps to take if you're concerned about someone's mental health

Ed Farber, Reston Psychological Center

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WASHINGTON - Two mental-health advocates say that the difficulties Sen. Creigh Deeds had in getting the proper mental health care for his son Gus are common in a system that is broken in Virginia and nationwide.

The Deeds family tried to get Gus into a psychiatric hospital as late as Monday, but he was released because no beds could be found, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. On Tuesday, Sen. Deeds was stabbed in the head and torso and taken to the University of Virginia Medical Center, in Charlottesville, where he's now in good condition. Gus Deeds was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 24.

The Washington Post reports that three Virginia hospitals, including hospital where Deeds is recovering, had beds available. Why they were not contacted is not yet known.

Still, a bed in a psychiatric hospital in Virginia is hard to find and getting harder, two experts told WTOP in separate interviews Wednesday.

Pete Earley, a best-selling author and former Washington Post reporter, told WTOP's Bruce Alan and Mike Moss on Wednesday morning that the Deeds family's difficulties are "not really surprising to anyone who understands Virginia's mental-health system."

According to a report by the inspector general, Earley says, authorities have a name for it: "streeting."

"You're supposed to have 50 beds per 100,000 people. In Virginia, we have 22," Earley says.

Earley says there were 200 documented cases last year of people being turned away from the mental-health system simply because there was no room for them.

Alan asked Earley, "If he was having an appendicitis attack or some ... heart ailment, they wouldn't have sent him home. Why turn him away in a mental heath crisis?"

Earley replied, "I'm afraid that that's just the situation ... in Virginia when it comes to mental health. We treat problems of the mind differently than we do the rest of the body."

Even in Fairfax County, which Earley says has an excellent mental-health care system, if you tell authorities you're having a psychotic break, "you'll be told there's a five-to-seven-day wait before you can see anyone. Can you imagine that happening if you have a heart attack?"

As the Deeds case shows, the violence that can ensue from mental illness can affect people other than just the afflicted. But Earley says mental health has not been a priority in the community, and adds that it's a matter of political clout and money.

The General Assembly added $42 million in new spending for mental health after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, Earley says. The next year, he says, they cut $50 million.

If you're worried about the mental state of someone in your family or someone you know, Ed Farber, of the Reston Psychological Center, says these are the steps to follow:

  • Get them to a mental-health professional, or an emergency room, to be evaluated.

  • If you think they're a danger to themselves or others, get the authorities involved: "Call the police, call the sheriff, call the medics, call in the troops if you can."

  • Make the environment safe. That means getting rid of weapons or anything the person can hurt themselves or others with: "Don't allow an impulsive act to occur in that situation."

  • Don't give up: Help is out there; "you just have to work harder for it than you would for other kinds of health conditions."
Signs to look for, according to Farber: Changes in behavior; a drop in work or school performance; social withdrawal; agitated behavior; extremes of excitement to helplessness. Above all, he says, "safety first."

"We have to make mental health a priority. It's not now, because people with mental health problems don't vote, usually ... they don't have money to give."

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, says that the legislature voted after the Virginia Tech shooting not only to spend more money on mental health services, but to revamp the code.

"We were on a good trajectory at that point," she says, "and then the recession hit, we had to cut all state funding and funding for mental health services was cut along with everything else."

She says that psychiatric beds in Virginia have gone down about 15 percent in the past few years and hopes that "partly as a result of this tragedy we will again make mental health services a priority."

"There is no question that there is inadequate funding," says Sen. Dick Black, R-Leesburg. He says he introduced a bill to restore 19 beds in northern Virginia.

Beyond the shortage of money, Black blames the "Kabuki dance that we make the authorities go through" before getting someone into a hospital if they don't want to go.

The first step in the process, Black says, is an order from a magistrate that only lasts four to six hours before another one is required. "It's too much bureaucracy, and we need to streamline it," Black says.

He wants the first order to last 48 to 72 hours, "so that we can do a serious evaluation."

Asked whether the prominence of the Deeds family would help direct people's attention to the problem, Black called Deeds "a friend to everyone in the Senate" and predicts that Tuesday's events will "have a major impact on what happens."

Earley was pessimistic: "One would hope so, but after Virginia Tech you would think that we get it. And unfortunately we haven't."

On Wednesday afternoon, Ed Farber, of the Reston Psychological Center, echoed Earley's sentiments, saying that "I don't think this would be happening if we were talking about heart attacks or stroke victims."

He added that there are permits to add many more beds in the state, but "they're just not available." Private facilities are on the decline in Virginia, he says, and budget constraints have prevented the expansion of public facilities.

Earley is the author of "Crazy," which documented his and his son's journey through the mental health system. He has said he lied to police, telling them his son tried to kill him, in order to get him into a hospital.

Gus Deeds was a music major at William & Mary University until withdrawing earlier this fall, according to a statement from the school.

"This is a heartbreaking time for the Deeds family and for all of us who are part of the extended William & Mary community," vice president for student affairs Virginia Ambler said in the statement. "Please join me in extending our deepest sympathy to Gus' family and friends."

Counselors are on call for students who need it, according to the statement.

WTOP's Dick Uliano contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter.

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