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Column: Unmet Needs Can Lead to Tragedy

The recent tragic stabbing of State Senator Creigh Deeds by his son who then took his own life brings to attention the importance of the mental health system and its very fragile condition in Virginia. While the young Deeds son was evaluated the day before the tragedy by staff of the local mental health board, he was discharged without being held for treatment. Early reports indicated that there was no facility available to accommodate him. Subsequent information seems to indicate that there were several hospitals within reasonable distance that could have taken him, but there is no system for coordination of available facilities and patient needs. At least two investigations are underway to find out what went wrong and why.

Regardless of the facts that are found surrounding this terribly tragic event, there remains a concern that the mental health system in Virginia is inadequate to meet the needs. Clearly the mentally ill are no more violent than the rest of society, and some statistics suggest that a smaller percentage of the mentally ill are violent than in the population at large. At the same time, however, violent people have their own needs for mental health treatment for themselves as well as for the safety of family and society.

The tragic slayings at Virginia Tech demonstrated the consequences of an untreated disease and the faultiness of the system that is supposed to take care of them. The immediate response in Virginia was to provide an instant transfusion of about $40 million to meet the need. Unfortunately with the economic recession and the cutback on spending, that money has mostly disappeared from the system. Mental health services had a budget of $424.3 million in FY2009, but that amount had decreased to $386.6 in FY2012. The adoption of a state budget for the 2014-2016 biennium must recognize the continued need and restore and supplement lost funding.

The same Inspector General who is looking into the circumstances of Deeds’ son being released without treatment earlier had looked into this problem system wide. In 2010 the Inspector General found that approximately 200 individuals were returned to the streets in Virginia that year even though there was agreement among mental health professionals that they needed to be hospitalized. In the view of these professionals, either these individuals were sick enough to harm themselves or others, or they were unable to defend themselves. This is referred to as the "streeting" of individuals with mental illnesses. It occurs when either there is no space for mentally ill people in public facilities or no private facility will take them. About one-third of the persons in local jails are in need of mental health services.

My continued prayers are with Senator Creigh Deeds and his family. May time bring about merciful healing. For legislators, may this tragic event spur us to action without the need for more lives lost and communities shattered. The need is clear; we must act responsibly.