Va. mental health admission law out of step with other states

WASHINGTON — The tragedy involving Sen. Creigh Deeds and his family has drawn the spotlight to mental health services in Virginia.

And one of Virginia’s mental health laws regarding emergency admissions is out of step with similar laws in other states.

When someone is believed to be mentally ill, and possibly poses a risk to themselves or others, the person can be admitted for a psychiatric evaluation and held initially up to 30 hours in Maryland, 48 hours in D.C., but just four to six hours in Virginia.

“We have sort of a Kabuki dance that we make the authorities go through,” says Sen. Dick Black, R-Leesburg, a member of the Education and Health Committee.

“You can’t get anything done in four to six hours,” Black says.

He says he plans to introduce legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session to expand the initial time period for a mental health evaluation to 48 hours.

“We need to have sufficient time to where we can have psychiatrists examine these folks and make sure that they are not going to do something violent if they are released,” Black says.

Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, also a member of the Education and Health Committee, says there are some perceived complications with the holding period.

“There’s been resistance to keeping someone for a long period of time partly because it ties up [law enforcement] and also because it then has an impact in terms of holding someone when there’s not been a formal, longer term decision made,” Barker says.

Barker says he has no doubt the General Assembly will debate extending both Virginia’s 48-hour emergency detention period and its initial four- to six-hour period allowed for mental evaluation.

Mira Signer, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says it’s important to safeguard every individual’s right against involuntary detention but “it’s reasonable to look at the time period,” she says.

Deeds was stabbed multiple times in the head and upper torso. His son, Austin “Gus” Deeds was found dead Tuesday morning at the family’s Bath County home of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Sen. Deeds was listed in good condition Wednesday afternoon at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, where he was flown after the altercation with his son.

Police have said they are investigating the case as an attempted murder-suicide but have not released details of what led to the stabbing and Gus’ death. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has reported that Deeds sought emergency psychiatric care for his son on Monday but that no hospital beds were immediately available in the rural, mountainous area.

Funding for and access to mental health services has continued to be a concern in Virginia since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. But lawmakers say the number of psychiatric beds in Virginia have dropped during the past several years and that funding is inadequate.

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