Fixing Virginia’s broken mental health system

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – Reforming Virginia’s mental health care system is at the top of the to-do list for lawmakers in Richmond this session. 10 On Your Side took a closer look at what’s being done about the issue affecting nearly 400,000 citizens statewide.

Since State Sen. Creigh Deeds’ son attacked him and then killed himself last year, lawmakers have introduced at least 60 bills regarding the state’s mental health care system, with Sen. Deeds leading the way. Before the tragic incident, Gus Deeds was under an emergency custody order, but the community services board said there were not psychiatric beds available, so he was released.

Earlier this week, the senate approved Creigh Deeds’ bill, which will extend the emergency custody order to 24 hours, create an online registry of available beds and require a state facility to accept a patient if no bed was found within eight hours. Many of the other bills advocate for similar changes, but is that enough? The question that remains: will lawmakers be able to fix the mental health care system for the long term?

Link: Read about and track the bills proposed to fix Virginia’s mental health care system

10 On Your Side went to Richmond to find out. There we met a group from Virginia Beach, who live with severe mental illness. They made the trip to convince legislators of the need for reform. Their message — look at us, mental illness can be treated.

The group advocated a rehabilitation day program in the resort city called Beach House and the need for more like it. Members go there to learn life skills: running a kitchen, a thrift shop and putting out a daily newsletter. Daniel Knight, a Beach House member, proudly showed WAVY.com around the facility.

Photos: Fixing Va.’s mental health system

“I’m glad to be here, I’m glad I don’t have to beat the streets, that I don’t have to do street life,” he said.

Knight was in and out of hospitals for 16 years before he landed at Beach House, where recovery is a team approach among counselors, doctors and peers.

“I’m getting better and better and better,” he told us.

Daniel could not put a price on what he’s found at Beach House, but experts say the state should. Medicaid pays $75 a day for members to attend Beach House, but it costs $600 a day for a hospital bed.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also advocates for Medicaid expansion. NAMI reports that 80 percent of people with mental illness could get services if that happened. Currently they report only 19 percent of adults who need it get state services.

“That is something our state system is charged with doing,” said NAMI Virginia Executive Director Mira Signer. She contends the state must be held accountable.

In December, Governor Bob McDonnell pledged $38 million to expand mental health programs. WAVY.com asked Singer if that was enough.

“It is kind of the $64,000 question,” she said. “I don’t think we really know.”

Signer says money isn’t going to solve all the problems: “To just say that there is x amount of dollars that we want to throw at the problem, I don’t think that’s necessarily the approach.”

And lawmakers know it, too.

“We’ve known for a while that our mental health capacities need to be improved,” Delegate Ron Villanueva of Virgina Beach told WAVY.com.

He believes this is the year lawmakers will make it happen. But 10 On Your Side wanted to know exactly how.

“Well, you have to trust in the committee process. Number one, these bills have been assigned in several areas — one is the mental health subcommittee,” Villanueva responded.

It seems no one knows exactly what it will take, but a Beach House alumn, Don Ayers, has some ideas: “What we need is education for people with mental illness, their families, for people in the community who do live with the stigma that all people with mental illness are dangerous or violent people.”

Ayers insists the answer has to start in schools with young people — teach them that the violence we saw with Gus Deeds and the Newtown school shooter are rare. Mental illness, like diabetes, can be managed, and patients like Ayers and Daniel can live productive, happy lives.

For that to happen, Ayers says we need just one thing: “We need people to care.”

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