Senator’s Story Is All Too Familiar: Difficult To Get Mental Health In Virginia


Bearing the scars from his son’s attack, Sen. Deeds returns to Legislature.

Virginia State Sen. Creigh Deeds has spoken out bravely about his son’s mental illness. Sadly, his story and attempts to help his son, Gus, will sound familiar to many of us.

The senator returned to the legislature this week for the first time since being stabbed last November by his son who then killed himself. The attack made national headlines after a local mental health official acknowledged that Gus had been deemed dangerous but not treated because there were no local hospital beds available. The next day, three hospitals said they had empty psychiatric beds but each was more than two hours away. This raised questions about whether local mental health officials had put sufficient effort into finding beds or whether Gus could have been taken to one of those facilities in time before the six hour mental health hold on him expired. Regardless, this family tragedy exposed weaknesses in Virginia’s system. (I’ll write more about the Deeds case in a future blog.)

Senator Deeds told his family’s story this week to a reporter at The Recorder, his hometown newspaper in rural Virginia. I salute Sen. Deeds’ bravery in speaking out and admire his determination to honor his son’s life by using his considerable political clout to help improve out system.

The Recorder Newspaper 

Bath County Virginia 

Senator Deeds Explains how system failed his son, Gus

By Anne Adams, Staff Writer

HOT SPRINGS — The loss is crushing.

A 24-year-old with everything to gain thanks to his multiple talents, Gus Deeds was cherished by his friends and family; he touched everyone around him.

“He could have written the great American novel, or the great song,” his father, Sen. Creigh Deeds, said Monday. “He could have performed professionally, been in a symphony orchestra … He had unlimited potential. He was sweet, generous, and he was never driven by material stuff. He had a bright, bright future. He was so capable; he could do anything and do it well.”

But Gus died Nov. 19, leaving a gaping hole for those who knew and cared for him. The circumstances of his death are heartbreaking and complicated.

Austin Creigh “Gus” Deeds was born in 1989 in Alleghany County, his parents surprised by the birth of a son, following daughters Amanda and Rebecca.

“Pam and I were living in a little rented house up on Rocky Ridge at the time,” his father explained. “We’d gone toClifton Forge, to the Kroger’s and Pizza Hut. Pam had jumped over a puddle at the Pizza Hut, and her water had broken.”

Gus was born less than 20 minutes after they arrived at the hospital. Creigh recalled his only son’s birth with a wide grin, reminiscing about Gus’ growing up years.

When Gus was about 18 months old, Pam and Creigh Deeds lived in a trailer as they worked to remodel their home. “It had an old wood stove that choked Gus,” Creigh said, to the point where the boy spent a week in an oxygen tent. “He had asthma. He was allergic to everything,” he said, “so he learned to sit very quietly. He was a very serious kid, and very sensitive, but there was never any hint of anything wrong.”

That serious nature turned increasingly outgoing as Gus grew older.

When Gus was about 6 or 7 years old, he tore through a drum set quickly. “He had such a natural rhythm,” Creigh said. Musical talent was in the family genes, and Gus had inherited a fair amount. In the band at Bath County High School, Gus turned to the trombone at about age 13. “But he realized that he couldn’t impress the girls carrying a trombone around,” Creigh said. So Santa left a harmonica in Gus’ stocking, and Gus taught himself to play it, followed by the piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo, and almost any stringed instrument. “He could do anything with a banjo,” Creigh said.

Gus would later major in music; Deeds said his son also considered himself a composer. “He even wrote a symphony on Dale Earnhardt’s death and how it affected NASCAR.”

With the addition of the youngest child, Susannah, and all their children’s friends, the couple found their home full of teenagers.

Gus’ numerous high school accomplishments were more than any parent could hope for, capping off his career at Bath County as valedictorian in 2007.

During Gus’ six years at Nature Camp in Rockbridge County, learning natural history and environmental science, he hit his full stride.

“I always thought he would end up doing some kind of performance art, probably in playing with a symphony professionally, or teaching … Gus loved the outdoors, the environment, and science,” Creigh said. “He loved watching all the critters, learning about them.”

Nature Camp was a natural fit for Gus. He thrived there, making more friends, and inspiring those around him. In his last year at the camp, he earned the high staff award for setting an example for others. That award has since been renamed in his honor.

Until three and half years ago, there were no obvious signs of mental illness. The affable Gus Deeds had enrolled in the College of William and Mary, and even took time out to hit the road with his father and sister, Amanda, supporting Creigh’s campaign for governor in 2009. “It was rough, but at the end of each day, I had them to hang out with,” Creigh recalled.

But Gus came to hate politics. In fact, Creigh said, he became apolitical, in part, he believes, because of his father’s career. “You know, I have a wall full of all these photos of my kids (in the Richmond office). I longed for my children when I had to be away, and my political journey took me away from home a lot.”

In 2010, Creigh and his wife had separated, and Gus and Susannah were living in the Millboro home with their mother.

Creigh said Pam was fearful about Gus. He recalled hearing from Pam one day — she woke up and found a note from Gus that said he was out taking a drive, but he didn’t return. Pam finally got a text from Gus; he had driven all the way to the West Coast. “When he was out there, he had some kind of born-again experience,” Creigh said.

That year, Gus went to Indiana with the Student Conservation Association, which educates young people in leadership related to the environment with hands-on service. Gus worked in a state park.

“Something happened out there,” Creigh said.

Deeds said his son had become not just outspoken, but highly opinionated and judgmental. “He was raised in the church,” he said, “and in Christianity, there is this notion of free will,” explaining the idea that while God is omniscient, humans have free will to act. “But Gus gave up on that idea of free will and started saying everything is God’s will, and that’s what God was telling him.”

In the fall, his parents had Gus admitted to Crossroads, a halfway house in Charlottesville, where he stayed for a couple of weeks for crisis stabilization.

Then, Gus got a job at The Homestead for a few months, from late 2010 to the following June, but then left and returned to live with his father. It was a tumultuous time.

Gus was manic, his father said. “He would dig these perfect rows in the garden with a shovel. He would go on these coyote hunts at night with knives and spears … but I never felt threatened by Gus.”

Twice Gus told his father he felt suicidal. The first time, Deeds got an Emergency Custody Order and had Gus committed at Augusta Health, where he was prescribed medication. “A month later, I had him committed a second time, in Petersburg,” Deeds said. “Both times it was the same thing; he was held for 48 hours and then released.”

Gus had gotten medication that seemed to calm him down. “At one point, the first time (in the Augusta facility), Gus told me, ‘This is where I belong. This feels right.’ I’ll never forget that.”

Creigh doesn’t know when, or if, his son was diagnosed with a mental illness. “I have no idea; he was an adult and I didn’t have access to his records,” he said, noting federal HIPPA regulations that protect patient privacy after age 18. “Physicians are required by law to protect people, and I think that’s good, but I also think sometimes physicians and sick people hide behind it.”

The second time Gus was committed, a doctor told Creigh that Gus had bipolar tendencies, but that he wasn’t a classic case of that disorder, in which people swing from deep depression to manic episodes.

Creigh did some research, and felt Gus might have had schizophrenia, too. “But I’m not a doctor, and I just don’t know.”

When Gus came home after the second time, “he was determined to stay out of the hospital, but he was not the same. He was a different Gus,” his father said.

Gus returned to William and Mary, where he was majoring in music. There, he had made the dean’s list two years and two semesters, but he began to struggle.

In early October last year, Creigh said, Gus revealed frustrations in Facebook posts that concerned his father, such as comments about teachers ganging up on him. Creigh reached out to Gus’ roommate for insight. The roommate told Creigh there was one class, in Cantonese (an Asian language), and Gus was struggling with it. That was strange, Creigh said, because Gus never had any difficulties with foreign languages and already knew some Chinese. In fact, he was a whiz at any language he studied.

The roommate was not concerned. “He just told me Gus was a weird guy, anyway,” Creigh remembered.

Gus was convinced this one professor intended to fail him, but Creigh said he was actually having trouble in all his classes. “I sent him a message asking if he needed help,” Creigh said. Gus said no, and told his father it would pass. But the next day, Gus told his father he wanted to come home.

At the time, Creigh and his wife, Siobhan, had planned a trip to Ireland, leaving the first of November. Siobhan’s mother had died in May, and they planned to scatter her ashes. “Then, here it was Oct. 4, and Gus was coming home,” Creigh said. “I was panicked. I felt I needed to get him some help, and I tried. I got him with a psychologist friend of mine. We had to create a ruse to get him there. I told Gus it was for us, that we needed to work on our relationship, communicate better.”

Deeds said the doctor described Gus as delusional and was deeply concerned.

“Gus had a funny way of recreating his whole life,” Deeds said. “He would say I wasn’t his father, or that he’d had a bad childhood and was tortured and starved. And he dismissed everyone; he had disengaged from his friends.”

In addition to seeing that doctor, Creigh called Rockbridge Area Community Services in Lexington — one of 40 such agencies across the state overseen by Community Services Boards.

Gus was to see the folks there while Creigh was gone. “I had to bargain with Gus to get him to Lexington,” Deeds said.

Two weeks later, having made arrangements for his son, Deeds left for Ireland. “I felt as comfortable (about it) as I could,” Creigh said.

In retrospect, Deeds said if he’d known Gus was coming home, he would not have planned the trip. “We thought he would go back to school,” he said, “but he was collapsing further and further into delusion.”

While Creigh was out of the country for two weeks, Gus only answered the landline at the home. “He never answered my texts, emails.”

However, Pam would take Gus out to eat. “While I was gone, his mother saw him… she thought things were fine … Maybe he had been in touch with other family members, I don’t know,” Creigh said. “He was on his mother’s cell phone plan, and he had turned his cell off on Oct. 26. That was the last time he made a call with it. All his last contacts were with family members.”

Creigh returned from Ireland Nov. 15, and to his home that Saturday, Nov. 16. “I saw glitches in his behavior, and had found his journal, and these things disturbed me.” That weekend, his psychologist friend called often, with her concerns about Gus. She was trying to get Gus in with another psychiatrist, Creigh said, and she recommended Creigh call the CSB, which he did first thing Monday.

“Gus had not returned his (CSB worker’s) calls, either, or kept his appointments with him,” Deeds said.

Deeds obtained an emergency custody order, as he’d done to commit Gus twice before.

Gus was taken to Bath Community Hospital for evaluation. “I had a sinking feeling,” Creigh said.

“I had court that day,” Creigh recalled, “so I was running back and forth to be with him.”

Gus was agitated. “That afternoon as I sat with Gus in the exam room, he’d pace, stare at me, pace some more. He never sat down.”

An evaluator came, but time under the custody order was running out. “He said he wasn’t suicidal and there was a problem finding a bed. But, as you’ve read, there were beds available apparently. I don’t know who the guy called.”

Pam was worried, too. She called and spoke with the evaluator, Creigh said. “She told him, ‘What if Gus hurts his father?’ and the guy replied, ‘Well, then he’d be in prison for a very long time.’ It was a complete exercise in frustration … before we left, the guy told me they would try to get him into Charlottesville (Crossroads halfway house) again but that he was worried about him that night.”

No one felt comfortable about Gus going home.

“His mother called or texted and said she did not want me to stay there with him …. Pam said, don’t stay with him.”

Creigh’s wife, Siobhan, was also concerned and asked Creigh whether she should come up from Lexington, but Creigh told her no.

Before they left the hospital, a plan was made to bring Gus to RACS in Lexington the next morning. The evaluator got Gus to agree to this, but as Creigh said, Gus was smart enough to give the man the answer he wanted. “It’s a hard thing to commit your own son … Gus regarded his hospitalizations as his darkest times. I knew he’d be upset.

“He had cut off everybody. In high school, he was so gregarious, also in Nature Camp, he had all these friends, and he really gave to people. But he had become suspicious, paranoid. I might have been the last person he really trusted, and here I was trying to commit him. I’ve tried to dissect the whole thing … I just don’t know.”

Creigh recalled that once before, Gus told his father he looked forward to his time in Heaven. “I did not take that as a sign of suicide,” Creigh said. “I just told Gus he needed to concentrate on what his life was here, first.”

Gus was released from the hospital in Hot Springs and Creigh took him back to Millboro. “He was quiet the whole way home,” Creigh said.

That night, Gus retreated to his journal. “He was writing furiously. He was up all night,” Creigh said.

Gus was athletic, strong, and in addition to his addiction to video games, Gus had become manic in his eating habits, putting on a lot of weight. He had stopped bathing, and let his beard and hair grow long. He would respond only to direct questions with monosyllabic replies. “He had been that way for a long time,” Creigh said.

“Some time that night, Gus determined I was evil and needed to die.”

The next morning, Creigh got up, got ready for work, then went out to the barn to feed. He saw Gus approaching.

“I asked him something like, Did you sleep OK? and he said yes. That’s when it happened.”

Gus stabbed his father numerous times around the chest and face.

“I never thought he was trying to kill me. I just thought he was mad,” Creigh said.

Creigh worked his way through the barn away from Gus, climbed a gate, and made it to a secondary road. “My plan was to walk from there to Route 42,” he said.

But his cousin, Wes, was taking some hunters back through the area to national forest, and happened upon Creigh. An ambulance was called, and Creigh was flown by helicopter to the University of Virginia.

He didn’t know it until later, but Gus had shot himself after the stabbing. Rescue personnel were unable to save Gus at the home.

“I was in shock, I had tubes all over me, I didn’t know,” Creigh said. “We were all, everyone was in shock.”

Creigh had removed all guns from his home in 2011, long before that day, but brought back two of them when bobcats got too close to the chicken house. “Gus was in school, then camp,” he recalled. “When I saw difficulties in his behavior, I disassembled one. There was no ammunition in the house for the .22 that I knew anything about; .22 shells have been difficult to acquire.”

Gus, his father said, “had given up on living.”

Creigh went into surgery that Tuesday; fortunately, no major arteries had been damaged and he was released from U.Va. on Friday.

His scars are now long, red, and prominent, reaching diagonally across his face. He lost a piece of his tongue, and that makes it difficult to talk. Part of his face, and much of his right shoulder and arm, have lost some feeling. The doctors tell him to wait six months and see if there’s improvement.

But Creigh dismisses his injuries. “The scars will heal,” he said. “This will look better over time,” he noted, pointing to the marks across his face. He didn’t want to be photographed; he’ll be in the public eye soon enough.

Creigh travels to Richmond tomorrow (Wednesday) for the start of this year’s General Assembly session. He’ll attend the new governor’s speech that night, and other functions he typically skips. As usual, he’ll grab a cheap hotel room; his wife will join him much as she can around her work schedule, and he intends to keep a low profile if possible. No press conferences: “The only people I need to convince are the ones who have a vote,” he said.

Primarily, he’s on a mission for his son, and other families. As a deeply loving parent, Creigh doesn’t want his son’s life to be defined by his illness, or the way he died. “I don’t want him to be remembered for this,” he said.

But Creigh does want legislators to think about what happened when they consider how to fix the system that failed Gus.

He is introducing four bills on mental health. “All of these would have made a difference for Gus,” he stressed. “The existing system broke down for him.”

Creigh said he has heard from people all over who have experienced similar tragedies.

“You have only two choices. You either go to the magistrate and get an ECO, or you declare him incompetent and have me appointed as legal guardian, which means he’s served with papers and it’s a long process. I didn’t even see that as an option. You have no other choice unless you’re super wealthy.”

Creigh aims to change that.

One of his bills calls for a two-year study on Virginia’s system handling both long-term and emergency mental health issues. Virginia governors, he noted, have one term, but General Assembly members are there over the long haul usually. “The General Assembly used to have its own voice … now the Republicans in the House kill all these studies because they think they’re saving money.” Deeds stresses lawmakers should not act on impulse. “That’s not a good way to change things,” he said. Rather, a longer study could give them more information to work with. “Comprehensive solutions are going to take money,” he said. “And the legislature hasn’t had its own solutions.”

Another calls for a study on the health care workers involved in evaluating mental health patients. “The Department of Behavioral Health has these guidelines for the right people to evaluate,” Deeds said, but his bill would help make sure those evaluating others would be qualified to do so.

“Our system has been poorly funded over the years,” he added.

The third proposes to extend custody orders from 4-6 hours to 24 hours. “You are out of time after six hours,” Deeds said. “That’s an arbitrary limit. I don’t know where that came from … the governor proposed adding another two hours if a magistrate has determined there is risk, but I think we need to extend that time; 24 hours might have been enough time to figure out what Gus needed. The proposal is modeled after a similar law in California. “I know Virginia doesn’t want to do anything like California does,” he said, “but this makes sense… Gus was committed twice, then kicked out.

“We tried to get him a long-term place at Western State… I didn’t know what else to do. You hate to commit your own child, but the last three and a half years of his life were unbelievable.”

The fourth proposal would create a database for acute care beds for people like Gus. Right now, CSB workers across Virginia make a series of phone calls to find a bed for a person with a mental health crisis. “They’re operating like we’re in the 1950s,” Deeds said. “It’s illogical in this day and age, in the Internet age, that we can’t have an online database. The private sector would need to be involved, but you can’t tell me we can’t do this.”

He hasn’t networked with his colleagues yet. “I haven’t talked to anyone; I’m not taking calls or seeing anybody. It’s just too hard.”

But despite the challenge of returning to his very public life, Deeds is determined. “As long as I’ve got something left to do, I’ll keep going,” he said. “I don’t like the way it is in Richmond now; it’s more like Washington … but I still believe in our democracy and I still believe in the process.”

For Gus, he says, “This system failed him miserably… we need to save all the children we can.”

Creigh expressed his deep appreciation for the support he and his family have received. “It’s just been overwhelming … people have been so kind with their cards, letters, emails and texts. I have not answered the phone, and it’s hard to face people right now, but most of them respect that.”

After Gus died, his family asked that any memorial contributions go to the Nature Camp Gus loved. Creigh is working with staff there to find the right kind of memorial. They may establish scholarships in Gus’ name or build a teaching pavilion. When the time is right, Creigh said, he and the rest of his family will hold services to honor their son, grandson, and brother.

“Maybe this spring,” Creigh said, “when grass is growing and life is blooming.”


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.