Yet again someone in the midst of a mental crisis did not get the help he needed. Why?

The stabbing of Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds on Tuesday apparently by his son, Gus, who later committed suicide, is the latest in a string of mental health related violent incidents. Initial news reports said Austin “Gus” Deeds had been turned away from a treatment center because no beds were available — a claim later denied by state hospital officials. What’s uncontestable is that Deeds didn’t get the help that he needed.

In September, it was Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter who murdered 12 and wounded three before being shot to death, who made headlines. Alexis tried at least two times to get help from Veterans Affairs medical centers, but was sent packing with nothing more than a handful of pills for insomnia. He also once called Newport, R.I., police from a hotel to complain that he was hearing voices in the walls and ceilings talking to him.

The real question that needs to be answered is why can’t someone who is in the midst of mental breakdown get help in our nation? I’ve spent the last nine years trying to answer that question because I couldn’t get help for my adult son when he got sick and he ended up being arrested. The simple answer is because our system is a mess. It’s badly fragmented, not welcoming, overburdened and extremely difficult to navigate, especially by someone who is not thinking clearly.

First some facts. Since the 1970s, we have been closing down state hospitals without providing adequate services in our communities to help people who are in the midst of a mental crisis. A 2010 report found that 200 individuals in Virginia who were psychotic and either dangerous or incapable of caring for themselves were “streeted” — slang coined by emergency room doctors for when hospitals knowingly put a psychotic patient on the sidewalk.

This is a national problem. In Iowa recently, I was told that officials sometimes had to drive patients across state lines to find beds. In Seattle, which has excellent services, individuals can spend 24 hours languishing in emergency rooms until beds in a treatment center open up. Experts recommend that 50 psychiatric beds should be available per 100,000 residents. The national average today is only 17 beds per 100,000.

HMOs are partly to blame. Psychiatric beds traditionally lose money so HMOs have been closing local psychiatric wards in favor of more profitable surgical beds. In northern Virginia where I live, 24% of public psychiatric beds were shut down in 2005.

Our legal system hampers our mental health system, too. We demand a person become “dangerous to self or others” before parents and others can intervene. This forces families to wait until it’s too late to get help. It’s a reason why our jails and prisons have become our new asylums. Great Britain and France have a “need for treatment” standard that allows for earlier intervention but has safeguards built in to prevent abuses.

The Deeds tragedy also exposes a taboo subject in mental health circles. Not wanting to increase stigma against our loved ones by painting them as violent (most individuals with mental illnesses are not violent), families are reluctant to admit that they often are afraid of other family members. Fifty percent of persons with severe mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, live at home with family members. Studies are scarce but a poll of members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the largest grassroots mental health group in the country, found that nearly 39% had been threatened by an ill family member or had their property destroyed. A similar poll in Massachusetts found that 50% of families had to cope with violent behavior in their home. In 80% of cases, the parents were the targets.

Fifty years ago this year, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act with hopes of closing down giant state institutions where the sick were warehoused. The goal was providing meaningful treatment in a community setting. That dream has never been fulfilled. Want evidence? Even a prominent state politician with clout and money couldn’t get his son the help that he needed.

Pete Earley is the author of CRAZY: A Father’s Service Through America’s Mental Health Madness. He can be reached at