Fear Mongering In Virginia: Can You Be Locked In a Mental Ward Without Reason?

If you believe stories on the Internet, thousands of Virginia residents are being locked up in mental hospitals each year against their will because of a ”corrupt” state involuntary commitment process. That’s right, as many as 20,000 are being forced into hospitals annually on a whim, because of unproven phone call accusations or as punishment because of their anti-government views.

This startling claim  has been made by John W. Whitehead, a Virginia civil rights attorney, who founded his own watchdog group– The Rutherford Institute — in Richmond. In a series of interviews with Business Insider, Whitehead said:

“I’m friends with the local police; I could call them right now and probably get you committed if you were in Virginia. They can arrive at your door based on somebody’s testimony or your Facebook page and take you away to a mental hospital… There’s a system here that is corrupt...”

Whitehead’s allegations were sparked by an incident in late August when local and federal law enforcement officers knocked on the door of  Brandon Raub, a 26 year-old former Marine, living in Richmond. The local FBI office had received a complaint about Raub because of several posts that he had put on his Facebook page.  The local FBI office notified the U.S. Secret Service and police department. On August 17th,  a team of officers went to evaluate Raub. During that interview, it was decided that Raub was showing signs of a mental disorder and needed to be temporarily detained until he could be evaluated and, if necessary, involuntarily committed to a hospital. 

 Raub was handcuffed and taken to a psychiatric holding facility for evaluation. A woman, reportedly Kristen Meghan, video-taped the police handcuffing a shirtless Raub outside of his house being put into a squad car. That video appeared on YouTube along with a notation that Raub, a former Marine, had been “arrested” and taken to a mental hospital because he had posted anti-government statements on his Facebook account.

The video went viral and that attracted the attention of Peter Bacque, a reporter for the Richmond Times Dispatch, who interviewed Raub on the phone and wrote a short story about his claim that he was being singled out because of his anti-government Facebook postings.

 Civil rights activist Whitehead dispatched an attorney to represent Raub and began alerting the media. He told Business Insider that every year in Virginia more than 20,000 people are committed under similar circumstances to Raub and “that means a lot of people are disappearing” under the pretext of mental illness. He complained that the system’s safeguards were easily thwarted by officials who ”rubber stamped” whatever the government wanted.  The treatment of his client was  “indicative of the corrupt system in Virginia.”

“The special justice [who heard Raub's case]  is very old,” Whitehead said. “He had trouble hearing Brandon. He brought into the courtroom a personal cassette player – we tried to listen to it and you can hardly hear what’s being said. This is the so-called judge – he’s a lawyer, not a real judge – it’s like what you would see in a bad movie.”

Raub was released August 23 after a judge ruled there wasn’t sufficient evidence to hold him. According to published accounts, Raub’s attorney admitted that mental health professionals, who had examined Raub before the hearing, had found signs of “psychosis’.  But the judge ruled that Raub didn’t meet Virginia’s involuntarily committed criteria. 

After Raub was freed, Whitehead posted his own interview on August 27th with Raub on the Internet further attacking Virginia’s mental health system. A follow up story said Raub was going to sue state officials.  ABC News and Fox News both broadcast reports that Raub had been punished because of his Facebook postings. Forbes magazine published a commentary by Lawrence Hunter, a former Reagan Administration advisor and chairman of Revolution Pact, under a headline that asked if Raub was the victim of a “Virginia Government Cover Up!”

Bloggers picked up the chant and Whitehead happily faned the flames, saying,

“{Raub’s arrest} made me scared for my country—the idea that a man can be snatched out of his property without being read his rights should be extremely alarming to all Americans.”

“Brandon Raub’s case exposed the seedy underbelly of a governmental system that seems to be targeting Americans, especially military veterans, for expressing their discontent over America’s rapid transition to a police state. Brandon Raub is not the first veteran to be targeted for speaking out against the government, detained against his will. … Hopefully, by holding officials accountable, we can ensure that Brandon is the last.”

Having served on a task force that helped draft Virginia’s current involuntary commitment laws, and as the father of a son with a mental disorder who twice has been through the involuntary commitment procedure, I found myself shocked by the inflammatory rhetoric that Whitehead and others made.

The most important question about the Raub case has nothing to do with Virginia’s involuntary commitment procedure. Should the government have reacted to Raub’s Facebook postings?  So let’s take a look at what Raub posted as reported by The Richmond Times Dispatch.

Aug. 4, Raub posted, “I am standing against a great evil. I will do it all by myself if I have to.”

An Aug. 5 post said, “If you are unaware of the great amount of evil perpetrated by the American Government I suggest you take … your head out of the sand. The day of reckoning is almost at hand.”

On Aug. 11, he posted: “I know many of you think I’m going crazy, and are wondering just why I have been posting the things I have been posting. I don’t have the energy to explain. Just know that a new beginning is coming.

On Aug. 13th, he posted: Sharpen up my axe. I’m here to sever heads.

On Aug. 15th, he wrote: “The Revolution is here. And I will lead it.”

Do these posts warrant a visit from the FBI? When viewed through the shootings at Virginia Tech, Tuscon and Aurora, the FBI said it was acting prudently. What’s your view?

What happened next to Raub was, quite frankly, routine — both in Virginia and in most other states.

Raub was handcuffed after the police or a crisis counselor interviewed him and decided that he needed to be temporarily detained. Unfortunataely, using handcuffs is standard practice. I believe few of our loved ones need or should be handcuffed, especially if they are not showing any signs of hostility. Handcuffing simply dehumanizes and aggravates a person. But there is a Catch 22 here. One of the criteria for involuntary commitment in Virginia and other states is language that requires an individual to be a danger to himself or others. Law enforcement officers argue that when a person is unstable, their actions are unpredictable, and because they must be dangerous to merit being detained, they must be handcuffed even if they are cooperating with the police. Regardless, Raub was not being treated any differently from any one else when he was handcuffed. He was not being singled out or punished because of his anti-government Facebook writings.

Raub was not arrested. There was no reason for him to be read his rights. In Virginia, as in most states, if authorities believe an individual meets that state’s critieria for involuntary commitment, they can temporarily “detain” that person until a qualified examiner can determine if there are grounds to hold them for a formal involuntary commitment hearing. If a hearing is warranted, the detainee must be represented by an attorney unless he/she refuses. The time a person can be held in custody varies, but most states require a hearing within 72 hours after a person is detained. Virginia requires that a hearing be held within 42 hours or sooner.

It is difficult to tell from news coverage if the correct protocol was followed in Raub’s case. But it appears that it was and there were no statements issued by Whitehead or others that showed otherwise. This means that Raub was taken by the police to a mental health facility where he was examined by a professional who recommended that he needed involuntary hospitalization. Before that hearing, Raub would have been examined by yet another mental health professional — an  independent examiner — who would then submit a recommendation to the special justice responsible for deciding Raub’s fate. 

This means that Raub would have undergone evaluations by at least one mental health professional and more likely two such officials before he was taken before a special justice for a hearing. At that point, he would be appointed an attorney to represent him.

 If you wish to believe Whitehead’s conspiracy theory, that means the police, a mental health professional at a hospital, and an independent examiner would have been involved in framing his client because of his anti-government rhetoric.

Whitehead is correct when he states that special justices at involuntary commitment hearings are not judges. According to a comprehensive  study of Virginia’s involuntary commitment procedures published by a commission that I served on, nearly all of them are lawyers who are appointed by a local chief judge. Whitehead also is correct when he states that the decisions by these special justices can vary greatly. I’ve written before about how Fairfax County’s three special justices are known for interpreting the law much more strickly than their peers. This inconsistency was noted by our reform commission and also has been noted by Virginia’s Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Services.  In a  report, the DMHBS noted “consistency is [the] toughest goal to achieve.”

But does this inconsistency mean Whitehead can simply pick-up a phone and have someone locked up in a state hospital — as he so brazenly claimed? 

That certainly hasn’t been the case when my son suffered his breakdowns and the studies that the Commission on Mental  Health Law Reform have published don’t support that claim. Whitehead’s cozy connections with the cops would only get him so far. A disreputable cop would have to find an equally dishonest evaluator in the local Community Service Board, a dishonest independent evaluator, a ‘look the other way’ court appointed attorney and an unscruplous special justice to railroad someone in Virginia.

Even if Whitehead had those multi-layered connections, he would run into additional problems after having his victim sent to a hospital.   Whitehead paints the image of 20,000 individuals virtually disappearing into some great Virginia state hospital abyss. Where are they? The most recent count shows 1,322 patients in our state’s eight adult hospitals. 

And hospital beds are at a premium with waiting lists.

According to recent investigations by Virginia’s mental health Inspector General, G. Douglas Bevelacqua,  some 200 people who needed emergency psychiatric help were turned away by emergency rooms in 2011 because there was no beds available in the state hospitals. Another 72 who met the criteria for being detained were simply “streeted” — released to the streets because there were no beds. It is not so easy to get someone into a hospital bed.

If Whitehead were somehow able to actually get an innocent victim detained, ruled mentally ill, involuntarily committed, and actually assigned to a bed in a state hospital, he would still need to bypass two more safeguards.  A psychiatrist at the hospital would have to play along with Whitehead and the state would have to hide their victim from Virginia’s Office of Protection and Advocacy. That office’s job is to make certain persons are not being abused or unnecessarily held in state facilities.

I’m not going to claim that it is impossible for someone who doesn’t need to be involuntarily committed to be forced into a locked mental ward. Most of us can remember a time when there were few safeguards and people were too easily locked up in gigantic mental hospitals where there was little hope for treatment or recovery.

But since those days, civil rights activists and state legislators have worked zealously to protect the rights of persons who have mental disorders. The detaining of Brandon Raub may raise legitimate questions about whether or not our government should be reacting to Facebook postings. But the idea that Virginia’s involuntary commitment process is ”corrupt” and that thousands of Virginians are being railroaded into hospitals because the state government doesn’t share their political views is an insult to Virginia residents, our state mental health workers and those of us who want to insure our loved ones’ civil rights are protected but that they also can get meaningful care when necessary.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • Imshortrn

    Just another example of how inaccuracies are published as fact and believed by a good number of the public.  We need more people like you who know or investigate the facts to set things straight.  Here’s hoping enough people read and understand.

  • Dinah

    Pete, Nice Post.  So much of this stuff is about Monday morning quarterbacking.  If this man had “severed heads” there would have been cries that he announced it on his Facebook page and nothing was done.  Given that he didn’t hurt anyone, it’s easy to say he was detained wrongfully.  What can you sue for after being held for evaluation and observation for 6 days?  It’s a funny way in which the legal and psychiatric systems are forced to interact.  Thanks for adding your perspective to the conversation.  

  • Terri Wasilenko

    This is an intriguing post. First, I think the FBI over reacted to Mr. Raub’s August Facebook postings. This in its self is upsetting. But Mr. Whitehead’s claim to power with his ‘cozy connections’ is troubling. Facts have been presented refuting his count of 20,000 individuals committed against their will. There are standards and procedures accessible to individuals involuntarily committed to use to protect themselves. From many family members’ view points (including mine), civil liberties have impeded mental health care services for their loved ones. There are too many mountains to climb when getting medical treatment for your child, spouse, sibling or parent.
    So this leaves me wondering about Mr. Whitehead’s mental health these days when he creates the kind of drama I just read about.
    Terri Wasilenko

  • Tgskale

    Thank you, Pete.
    This is disturbing on so many levels.  
    It is true that people picked up for psychiatric holds are handcuffed in most places.  We are always saddened to see that but that is the law, at least in our area.  I will say, though, it is NEVER a good idea to write or say “sharpen up my axe, I’m here to sever heads.”  If I had seen that, I would have definitely alerted someone to investigate further.  That kind of comment warrants exploration and is indicative of very poor judgement if not a potential threat to public safety.  
    As always, Pete, thank you for your thought provoking post. We will be talking about this at our Psychiatry meeting today.

  • Dagny

    According to a recent study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, the total number of beds available in 

    VA for psychiatric patients is 1407. ( This was as of 2010, they may have less now)In what reality do you have 20,000 psychiatric beds available?

  • Xsquader

    The government is comprised of the majority. The majority of people in the US are morons. Therefore the majority of government workers are morons. It is as simple as that.