A Breath of Fresh Air: Two Nonpartisan Politicians Working To Improve Mental Health Care


Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds

(7-28-17) At a time when it’s easy for all of us to feel disappointment in our political system, we have an example of the best in our democracy here in Virginia.

I’m talking about the cooperation and determination of state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D.) and representative Rob Bell (R.) in working together to improve mental health and substance abuse care in the state.

An example of Deeds’ statesmanship came late yesterday when his attorney announced the state senator had chosen to drop the Virginia Department of Behavior Health and Developmental Services from a $6 million wrongful death lawsuit that he had filed last year in response to the preventible death of Gus, his 24 year-old son.

In return, the department has pledged to partner with him in helping overhaul Virginia’s fractured mental health and substance abuse system.  The exact details about what the state actually will do haven’t been formalized. However, according to a Richmond Times Dispatch story by K. Burnell Evans, the department has agreed to hold an annual symposium “that will provide a forum for discussion of mental health topics and issues of significance in Virginia and of interest across the country.”

In announcing Deeds’ decision to let the department off-the-hook, his attorney said, “It has always been Senator Deeds’ goal to reach a point of constructive change that can serve to prevent any other family from experiencing the tragedy his family experienced.”

Simply put, it never has been about the money. It has been about forcing the state to improve services – something it has historically failed to do.

You might recall that Sen. Deeds took Gus to a mental health care facility only to be told no local beds could be found within the state’s 72-hour hold period. Deeds returned home with his son who attacked his father with a knife, slashing him thirteen times, before ending his own life. It later was revealed that beds had been available but there was no state-wide system showing where they were.

Since the death of his son, Deeds has joined with Delegate Bell in launching a multi-year, comprehensive review of state services and potential reforms. (Full disclosure: I serve on one of the group’s task forces that is specifically examining: conditions in jails, court diversion programs, treatment dockets, and the cost of providing services vs. incarceration.)

Rob-BellTheir non-partisan teamwork is a refreshing breath of air, especially for those of us who live in the Washington D.C. area.

It’s always frustrating that it takes a tragedy, usually an avoidable death such as the Deeds case, to prompt reforms.  But much credit also should be given to Deeds for having the courage to sue the state.

Because he serves in the general assembly (state legislature), he was criticized by some, but I’ve seen dozens of examples where lawsuits against state agencies were the only reason why system changes happened.

Deeds has not dropped the local mental health agency and its former employee, who failed to find a bed for Gus, from the wrongful death suit. At least five facilities in the region had a room available for Gus but none was contacted.

An attorney for the mental health agency and former employer has filed documents arguing that both are immune from being sued because of “sovereign immunity,” which protects government agencies and their employees in Virginia from lawsuits unless there is evidence of gross negligence. Their attorney said the employee either faxed or called seven facilities before turning away Deeds and his son, according to a story written by Laurence Hammack in the Roanoke Times.

Deed’s lawsuit stated that Gus’s mother, Pamela Miller Mayhew, telephoned and warned the employee that her son would kill her former husband and then himself if he were not hospitalized, but the employee “brushed off” those warnings along with Deeds’ pleas to have his son admitted.

Since the tragedy, the state has created a registry that links all residential facilities so social workers can immediately determine during emergencies where empty beds can be found.

Two years before the incident, the state’s then Inspector General for mental health warned the department and legislature that hospitals were “streeting” patients, a term that referred to the practice of refusing to admit and treat patients who met the state’s criteria for being dangerous to themselves or others.

Those of us who live in Virginia, especially those of us with loved ones who are sick, owe a tremendous amount of thanks to Deeds, and also his legislative partner, Bell, (pictured above) in pushing for much needed reforms.

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.