WASHINGTON — It’s a long road ahead to bring about change to Virginia’s mental health system, but a Virginia state senator — whose son took his own life and suffered from mental illness — is pressing ahead with efforts to address the sensitive topic.
“One-in-four people have some form of mental illness and there are a lot of people who aren’t being cared for now,” says Virginia Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County.
He’s working to change that. He says new laws passed this year will help address mental health emergencies across the state.
“We can’t solve all the problems, but we’ve got to solve what we can. So this year was the first bite, we still have a long way to go,” Deeds says.
Deeds experienced difficulty in getting his son Austin “Gus” Deeds treatment before the Nov. 19 knife attack at their Bath County home. Deeds said his 24-year-old son’s mental illness began to manifest itself after he had turned 18.
Deeds says the most important thing — more than any bill being passed during this year’s Virginia General Assembly session — was the formation of a commission to do a four-year study taking apart the state’s mental health system.
“I hope we can use the study over the next four years to make over the mental health system, focus on the problems. I think a big chunk of what this study is going to focus on is how we get care to those who need it as quickly and as efficiently as possible,” he says.
Sen. Deeds says one major problem with the current mental health system is that there is “a Department of Behavioral Health, we have 39 or 40 [Community Services Boards] around the state. There’s real no accountability built in to the system.”
The newly formed commission is made up of state senators including Deeds and other House members. Sen. George Barker, D-39th District, from Fairfax is on the commission.
“What’s great is that we’re going to look across the whole system. So we’re not just going to pick certain things and ignore others,” Barker says.
Barker says the commission travels the state collecting information and will also be holding public hearings.
“Getting input from people across the commonwealth so we have the perspective of what’s working best, what’s not working best in each region of the state. So that we understand how we can make sure the system operates well from a state perspective but also in all the regions of Virginia,” Barker says.
The commission will provide a two-year report in 2016 to the General Assembly and then a final report in 2018.
“Too often in this area and other areas progress is defined by antidote. A crisis occurs, we respond and then we go home,” Deeds says. “We’re fat and happy. We can’t be happy, the process is ongoing. I don’t think we’ll ever finish. We’re taking, I hope, a long term approach with mental health. And so we might not have legislation for a couple of years and we’re not going to have a final report for four years.”
There is a commitment for the study from the House, the Senate and the governor’s office.
“So for all three parties, everybody is fundamentally committed to this.,” Barker says. “And even though it was Sen. Deeds who obviously was the focal point of all of this and put the proposal in, it was the House members who said let’s make is a four year study. Let’s make it something that we have the time to do it right and to get it done.”
The commission could meet as early as June.