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Deeds’ relentless work has bolstered Virginia’s mental health system

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Deeds’ relentless work has bolstered Virginia’s mental health system

Nov 29, 2023 | 12:04 am ET
By Roger Chesley
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Deeds’ relentless work has bolstered Virginia’s mental health system
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The Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents. (Image via University of Virginia Medical School)

The scars state Sen. Creigh Deeds carries — both physical and psychological — since that awful day 10 years ago have propelled him to overhaul the commonwealth’s imperfect mental health system. 

It’s a work in progress. Successes and setbacks continue to occur around the state:

A new mental health hospital for children, a rarity nationwide, opened in Norfolk. Police officers have received crisis intervention training to de-escalate encounters involving the mentally ill.

However, STEP-VA, an initiative to improve behavioral health services at the state’s 40 community service boards, has struggled. “The implementation has been challenging, and the actual cost has been elusive,” Deeds told me by email.

Deeds took on this role after his son, Gus, attacked him during a mental health crisis and then committed suicide. 

All Virginians owe Deeds a debt of gratitude for his unwavering focus born out of personal tragedy. We wouldn’t be as far along in boosting mental health services statewide without his relentless efforts.

Deeds’ relentless work has bolstered Virginia’s mental health system
State Sen. Creigh Deeds. (Courtesy of Deeds)

“Certainly, my mental health policy work has become a significant part of my workload,” the Charlottesville Democrat told me, “and I expect it will be for however long I am able to serve.”

The Washington Post recently reported on Deeds’ crusade, a decade after the event that has since stamped his legislative career and made his name synonymous with overhauling mental health practices in Virginia.

On Nov. 19, 2013, Deeds’ son, Gus, stabbed him 13 times before fatally shooting himself. Gus Deeds, 24, suffered from bipolar disorder.

The day before the attack, the elder Deeds had gotten an emergency custody order for his son to receive treatment. But an official couldn’t find a psychiatric bed before the six-hour hold expired, and Gus Deeds was sent home with his father.

Sen. Deeds suffered numerous injuries in the attack, and he nearly lost his right ear. In the immediate aftermath, his face and other parts of his body bore numerous scars.

He thus became — quite literally — the face of mental health reform. He chairs the state Behavioral Health Commission, established in 2021 as a standing panel of the General Assembly. As The Post noted, Deeds has sought to overhaul the system, bringing attention to problems behind bars, for example, and trying to make it easier for young people to receive care.

We still hear too much about the former. Perhaps the worst case in recent years involved the death of Jamycheal Mitchell at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in 2015.

As I wrote at the time, Mitchell was jailed for reportedly stealing about $5 worth of junk food from a convenience store. He suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and a judge had ordered him to be sent to Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg to be restored to competency. Administrative snafus prevented the transfer.

Mitchell, 24, died of probable cardiac arrhythmia and wasting syndrome, according to an autopsy. He had lost around 40 pounds while in jail. A lawsuit by his family, which needed then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s approval, was settled for $3 million in 2019.

More recently, Irvo Otieno died from asphyxiation in March after Henrico sheriff’s deputies and Central State Hospital employees took turns kneeling on him for almost 11 minutes as he was being admitted to the psychiatric hospital. His family later agreed to an $8.5 million settlement with the state and county sheriff.

Otieno’s relatives said he had a long history of mental health problems. Several people face second-degree murder charges in the death.

Advances in the mental health field have occurred, thankfully. Among the brightest was the fall 2022 dedication of the Children’s Pavilion psychiatric facility at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk.

Though Deeds didn’t help develop the center, “his continued advocacy in the mental health arena will be essential for its continued success,” Bryant Thomas, CHKD vice president of advancement, said by email.

The $224 million facility has annual program costs of $45 million. It features 60 inpatient rooms as well as outpatient mental health services. A CHKD spokesperson said 657 admissions occurred in the first year of operation, and 486 patients admitted to the main hospital also received mental health services in the past fiscal year.

“There’s been a lot said that this hospital is going to be the best in the state,” Deeds said at the dedication last year, “but I’ve been to a bunch of hospitals, and it’s going to be the best in the country.”

“This will be a place where kids get better,” he added, “where hope is restored to families, and where others all over the country, and probably all over the world, look to for advances in research and treatment.”

Obstacles remain toward improving mental health care in Virginia. Deeds told me the most important need is to boost the workforce. “We have shortages at a critical level for nearly every type of professional who provides services to people in need,” the senator said, though he added the problem is not unique to behavioral health.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a budget deal in September that includes $58 million to expand and modernize Virginia’s crisis services system. An additional $10 million establishes mobile crisis services in underserved areas. 

Deeds, though, criticized the recent announcement by the administration to eliminate a deputy commissioner post at the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The Richmond Times-Dispatch said the shakeup is aimed “at carrying out the ‘Right Help, Right Now’ reforms” promised by Youngkin to improve delivery of services for people facing psychiatric or substance use crises.

However, the move comes as the governor is urging state agencies to earmark savings of up to 10% in their operating budgets. “There is certainly nothing wrong with looking for efficiencies,” Deeds said, “but I remain concerned that this administration is not looking for ways to better serve those in need, but rather is trying to justify further tax cuts.”

Deeds will keep pointing out such shortsighted decisions. As he must — and not just in his son’s memory.

The lives of Virginians depend on Deeds’ candor and guidance.

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