Creigh Deeds leads mental health discussion at public forum

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Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds. Staff photo Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds. Staff photo

It’s been six months since Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds was attacked by his mentally ill son Austin C. “Gus” Deeds, who fatally shot himself after stabbing his father in the head and upper torso near a barn on the family’s Bath County property. Now, the senator is actively seeking legislative and community involvement in a statewide discussion about mental health.

Deeds, whose son had been diagnosed as bipolar and was denied access to a hospital bed after a Rockbridge Area Community Services Board mental health care worker determined that he should be hospitalized the night before the incident, has cleared the way for legal action against the agency that released Gus Deeds. Earlier this month, Deeds’ attorneys notified the agency and the localities it serves that a lawsuit may be possible. Meanwhile, the senator addressed about 100 people at the Jefferson School City Center on Thursday at a forum organized by the Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition.

“One in four Americans have some form of mental health issue going on. It might be as simple as depression or substance abuse, or it could be more serious,” Deeds said. “Too many people live crisis to crisis. Too many people struggle on a daily basis.”

Deeds noted that parents know what to do if their kids have the flu or a heart defect, but what about when it comes to mental health?

“There is no adequate response,” Deeds said. “There’s never going to be enough money to do everything we need, but that’s no excuse for negligence, and a failure to respond to emergency situations.”

Joining him on stage were representatives from the Free Clinic, Region 10, UVA Medical Center, and the Thomas Jefferson Area Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), who all spoke about the local and statewide steps organizations have been taking since Deeds’ tragedy in November.

According to Region 10 Executive Director Robert Johnson, the agency has seen a significant increase in mental health related calls in the past year. In April of last year, Region 10 filed 33 temporary detention orders; this April that number nearly doubled to 64. In April 2013, the agency performed 163 crisis evaluations; in April 2014, 208. The number of emergency custody orders has also jumped from 25 to 41 since last spring.

“There are a lot more people in distress,” Johnson said. “The upside is, people are more aware of the need to call before something happens. They’re not sitting in denial, trying to handle it by themselves.”

Sue Hess, a community nurse and mental health navigator with Mental Health America of Charlottesville Albemarle, shared a brief story about one of her patients. “Karen” had lost her job, was suffering severe shoulder pain, and had begun spiraling downward.

“Most of us know what it’s like to hit a brick wall, and ask questions like ‘How do I regroup and find the strength to get out of bed today?’” Hess said. “She needed support and encouragement.”

Hess said “Karen,” like most people in her situation, wanted to stay out of the hospital and out of jail, but needed help navigating local programs so she could get back on her feet.

After the presentations, about a dozen audience members stood in line behind the microphone to address the issues that had been brought up. When Dornita Herndon took the mic and introduced herself, the room erupted in applause.

“I’m ‘Karen,’” Herndon said. “I’m the lady that Sue Hess helped.”

Herndon said the lack of programs available for unmarried, childless adults has made it even more difficult to get her life back on track, but she’s actively seeking opportunities to work and hopes to help others like herself.

 

“There are stigmas everywhere around mental health,” Herndon said after the event. “There’s still so much left to be done.”

 

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