Another Preventable Tragedy Strikes Virginia

This week, Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds was stabbed multiple times in the face and chest by his own son, Austin (Gus) Deeds, who then shot himself to death. The Virginia state police described this attack as an “attempted murder-suicide.” While true on the face of it, this finding skirts the fact that Gus Deeds had received a psychiatric evaluation from the Rockbridge Community Services Board just the day before

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, in Virginia, a person must meet three criteria for inpatient treatment:

  1. Be an imminent danger to self/others;
  2. Be so seriously mentally ill as to be substantially unable to care for self;
  3. Be substantially likely to “suffer serious harm due to substantial deterioration of his capacity to protect himself from harm or to provide for his basic human needs as evidenced by current circumstances.”

An Unsuccessful Evaluation

After evaluating Gus Deeds, state mental health officials had tried—unsuccessfully—to find a bed in a hospital psychiatric ward.  Why unsuccessfully? Well, there were no beds available. A magistrate did issue an order of involuntary commitment but that is a hollow mandate when there is nowhere to commit the individual to. They tried multiple hospitals but came up with nothing. So Gus Creech went home, where he tried to kill his father and succeeded in killing himself.

mental health services shrinking

Source: Andrew Sullivan

Trip Gabriel in The New York Times says that, “the stabbing sent shock waves through Virginia political circles.” Everyone immediately issued statements that they were praying for Senator Deeds to recover. Prayers are good but we need secure beds for the mentally ill even more.

The question that Virginia’s political circles might be asking is why there was no bed available for Gus Deeds. The Washington Post says that, “The attack on the senator brought new scrutiny to Virginia’s mental-health system.” I say it’s about time.

Why? Do the math.

Mental Health Budgets by State

Virginia is Number 26 in per capita mental health services expenditures by state mental health agencies according to State Health Facts. That’s pretty much smack in the middle.

But between FY 2009 and FY 2012, the Commonwealth of Virginia reduced its mental health budget by 9 percent—from $424.3 million to $386.6 million. That’s not the biggest reduction in state mental health budgets by far, though. It doesn’t even put Virginia among the top six states plus DC in defunding mental health. Those are

  1. South Carolina (-39.3 percent)
  2. Alabama (-36 percent)
  3. Alaska (-32.6 percent)
  4. Illinois (-31.7 percent)
  5. Nevada (-28.1 percent)
  6. District of Columbia (-23.9 percent)
  7. California (-21.2 percent)

A Starved Mental Health System

But it is significant. As The Washington Post article by Paul Schwartzman, Rosalind S. Helderman and Jenna Johnson noted, “Six years after the Virginia Tech massacre, which prompted an outpouring of attention and dollars for state mental-health care, advocates still say the system is starved for money and reform. Lawmakers, state officials and mental-health advocates expressed agreement Tuesday that a shortage of beds for patients in crisis is one significant problem.”

Inpatient Psychiatric Beds


A National Shortage of Psych Beds

According to the article, this inability to find a bed for a person who needed one happened 72 times in 2012. While that’s a fraction of the 5,000 orders issued, it means that 72 lives were put at risk and possibly more when you consider the families involved.

Mental health advocates are warning that a shortage of “psych beds” nationally makes similar incidents likely. CNN says that, “Research from the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center found that the number of state psychiatric beds decreased nationwide by 14% from 2005 to 2010. In 2005, there were 50,509 state psychiatric beds, compared with 43,318 in 2010. In 1960, by comparison there were 535,000 public psychiatric beds nationwide.” The difference, of course, is made up in prison beds—which is where Gus Deeds would have gone had he not killed himself.

To his credit, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell ordered a review of state and area mental health services. You can be sure, however, that this only happened because Creigh Deeds is a well-known public figure.

A Preventable Tragedy?

Would this preventable tragedy have happened if a secure hospital bed had been available? Probably not—or at least not right now. Gus Deeds would have gone to a facility that could deal with his crisis and received help there. He would not have ended up in the morgue and his father would not have gone to the hospital.

This issue is not about crime or guns or politics. It’s about the most powerful and prosperous country in the world deciding that the time has come to take our heads out of the sand and get serious about caring for people with mental illness—particularly our own children.