Last November, the son of Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, of Virginia committed suicide after stabbing his father: A new mental health bill was passed by the Virginia senate may give others in mental health crises the time and resources to get the help they need.
Deeds sponsored the behavioral health regulation legislation that increases the length of time an individual can be held in emergency care during a mental health crisis from 6 hours to 24 hours, expanding the time for family and healthcare providers to find suitable mental health services.
Turning around a tragedy
Interviewed by CBS This Morning earlier this year, Deeds described how a happy teenager found himself in the depths of a mental health emergency. According to Deeds, his son Gus started showing signs of mental illness shortly after his 18th birthday, and Deeds and his wife found it difficult to get even the most basic information about what was wrong and what could be done.
“There’s a lack of information, there’s a lack of communications, and frankly my concern is that because there’s such a stigma attached to mental health, there’s a lack of overall awareness,” Deeds said.
“There’s an inequity in the way we treat people with mental illness,” he added.
The problems came to a head last Nov. 19, when Gus Deeds was taken to the emergency for a full-blown crisis but could be held for just 6 hours under an old Virginia statute preventing hospitals from detaining patients longer than that against their will. While an emergency custody order was issued and he was evaluated, Gus had to be sent home despite his father’s objections when the Rockbridge Area Community Services Board could find no available beds.
“When it’s been determined that that person’s in crisis and needs service, there should not be a possibility that they are streeted,” noted Deeds, who went on to propose the bill that may help save others from experiences like his.
Online registry – in real time
One of the factors that used up much of the time the family did have to locate care for Gus was the need to locate beds by phone. This will change rather quickly. Besides the extension of the emergency custody order, the legislation provides for an online registry of psychiatric beds that would give families and staff real-time information about where beds are available, both in private and public facilities. With development of the registry underway, it is expected to be up and running within weeks.
Escalation of efforts
With the objective of maximizing the 24 hours now available, the law requires that action be taken within the first of emergency custody. If hospital staff and mental health workers cannot locate a bed within 4 hours, they much notify state health officials. After 8 hours, additional measures must be taken. If the patient cannot be placed at that point, state hospitals must admit them temporarily.
Task force proposed
To help ease the burden on law enforcement agencies, who must keep the patients in custody as the emergency orders are carried out, the legislation calls for a Governor’s Task Force to address the matter.
According to The Washington Post, the legislation was designed to close the gaps in the state methods for handling mental health crises that were dramatically exposed during Deeds’ son’s experience. After Gus’ death, Deeds remarked, others related similar encounters and frustrations.
“This bill before you is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Our treatment of the mentally ill … is just desperately broken, not just here in Virginia but across the country.”
The issue of youth
A recent University of Michigan study determined that while mental healthcare needs improvement across the board, this is even more true of services for children and young people.
The survey of adults who work and volunteer with children and teens indicated respondents did not believe younger people have enough access to mental health care. Matthew M. Davis, M.D., M.A.P.P., director of the National Voices Project, which conducted the study, explained why these respondents were interviewed.
“The adults in the National Voices Project survey work or volunteer on behalf of kids. These are the adults who are perhaps best positioned to refer children and teens to the healthcare services they need,” he said.
Survey participants were first queried as to their perceptions of the availability of healthcare in general for children and teenagers, and more than half replied that there is “lots of availability” for teens to get access to both primary care and hospital care in their communities.
When the question was rephrased to address access to mental health services, however, only 30 percent reported “lots of availability.”
“These findings indicate low availability of mental health care for children and teens in the majority of communities across the U.S. … Even in communities where there are lots of opportunities for children and teens to get primary care or hospital care, access to mental health care is lacking,” remarked Davis.