Creigh Deeds: Mental health reform must be a priority

The 2014 session of the General Assembly is streaking by and will soon be a memory. This year’s session is memorable for several reasons.  First, it is the first year of a new governorship, which always brings a certain level of excitement, together with a period of uncertainty as new people get accustomed to new jobs.  Second, the legislature convenes with the idea of addressing problems and balancing the budget for all the people of Virginia.  While each session resembles the previous one, new legislators and a new administration guarantee a new twist.

deeds-header-newFor the past several years, I have been forced to deal with the state’s system of mental health on behalf of my son.  In November a lot of issues related to that system were thrust in my face. I am determined to take the experience I have and use what I’ve learned to try and prevent future tragedies. To that end, I’ve introduced several pieces of legislation.

First, I introduced legislation requiring the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) to review the qualifications of workers charged with evaluating people in crisis. Current regulations require the person performing the evaluation to have a Master’s degree or its equivalent or be a registered nurse with a certain amount of experience in the psychiatric field. However, based on my experience, it is not clear that every person charged with doing evaluations has the necessary skills and qualifications; I have asked the Department simply to review the regulations and make a report to the General Assembly. Before wholesale changes are made to current law, we need to take into account that which is currently on the books and review whether it works.

Second, I’ve called for increasing the amount of time a person may be held under an emergency custody order (ECO). Current law allows a person to be held for four hours with, under certain circumstances, one two hour extension. That time frame is the shortest in the nation. Most states hold people between 24 and 72 hours before a determination is made that they should be held pursuant to a temporary detention order. While that legislation has drawn a lot of fire, specifically from the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association and the ACLU, it makes sense to me to bring Virginia in line with the rest of the country. There should not be an incident of one who is in need of stabilization services being released, or “streeted.”

Just as important as extending the time period is to eliminate the requirement that the duration of the ECO be extended by a magistrate. Particularly in rural areas, merely having to seek an extension is a waste of precious time.

Coincident with my legislation, others have introduced bills to require that a state facility be a provider of last resort. That legislation essentially would require that a bed be available when one is deemed necessary.

The third bill I sponsored calls for the establishment of a digital registry of available, public and private, psychiatric beds. The Department has been working on a registry for about three years; however it is not a mandate in the law. In this internet driven information age, it makes no sense for precious hours to be wasted on the phone looking for a bed when live time information could be readily accessible.

The last bill I introduced relating to mental health calls for a comprehensive study of our mental health care delivery system. We need to look not only on how we provide services in the area of crisis intervention, but how we deal with mental health issues long term. What kind of care should we be providing to people who are mentally ill? The study resolution has been rewritten to include issues related to the re-institutionalization of the mentally ill in our jails and prison system. The issues are absolutely related, and I hope we can move this matter forward.

While it is difficult for me even to talk to friends right now, I made a decision to speak publicly about my circumstances in order to prevent future tragedies. And I chose what I consider to be the biggest megaphone. By taking to the airwaves, I hope that I can effect as much change as possible and in some way help the millions of families across the country who are struggling and looking for help.

I look forward to hearing from you as we move through the session.  I appreciate the opportunity to continue to serve you in the Senate of Virginia.  Concerns, questions, or requests should be directed to my office at:  PO Box 396, Richmond, Va 23218, district25@senate.virginia.gov, or (804) 698-7525.

Creigh Deeds is a member of the Virginia Senate.

         
 

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