Virginia Tech Tragedy: Changes in mental healthcare laws

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — As we remember the tragedy at Virginia Tech 10 years ago this coming Sunday, we put mental health back under the microscope.

Lawmakers responded to the mass shooting in 2007 with a $42 million legislative package to reform the state’s mental health system.

The gunman, 23-year-old Seung Hui Cho, never received the mental health treatment a judge ordered him to get more than a year before the massacre. He slipped through gaping holes in the system. Lawmakers filled — or attempted to fill — those holes the very next year with two dozen new laws. Still, we found parents who still struggle today to find treatment for children suffering from mental illness.

Virginia Tech Remembrance Coverage

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Jessica Eason told 10 On Your Side when speaking of her son’s future.

Like a mama bear, Eason has been clawing her way through the mental healthcare system for 12 years.

“And here we are. I can’t say that we’ve had positive results.”

Her 17-year-old son’s struggle began shortly after the tragedy at Virginia Tech, after lawmakers enacted sweeping reforms applauded by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Virginia chapter.

“We really feel that overall, it’s been positive. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still problems and things that need to be addressed,” said NAMI Executive Director Mira Signer.

She points to positive change that brought accountability to the process for mandatory outpatient treatment, clarified the criteria for involuntary commitment and increased state funding for community mental health services.

10 On Your Side’s Stephanie Harris sat down with Signer and asked, “Had these reforms been in place 10 years ago, would the massacre at Virginia Tech have been prevented?”

Signer answered, “That’s the $64,000 question.”

10 On Your Side also asked if these new laws are protecting Jessica Eason’s son, who has been committed twice in and out of group homes and now sits in a juvenile detention center.

“People will judge you and they will think that you’re just not a good parent that you’re not disciplining your child, not paying them enough attention. It has nothing to do with that. I fought so hard, ” Eason told WAVY.com.

Despite reforms since Virginia Tech, the Commonwealth has witnessed the tragic results of system failures.

In 2013, Senator Creigh Deeds’ son Gus stabbed his father and killed himself after a commitment order expired before a case worker could find a hospital bed.

In 2015, Jamycheal Mitchell died of starvation in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail when paperwork ordering his transfer to a mental hospital slipped through the cracks.

Signer told WAVY.com, “It’s an inherently complicated, complex system with lots of room for error.”

More new laws have gone on the books since both of those tragedies. Still, Eason contends families don’t need more legislation — they need more doctors.

According to a map published by the Federal Health Resources and Services Administration last year, most of Virginia has a shortage of psychiatrists.

Eason told us it can take two months to get an appointment and that’s an eternity for someone like her son with impulsive behavior.

“He just doesn’t think, because he sees red when he gets upset, which it’s very easy for him to get upset.”

That is upsetting for her, and so many others who continue to fight stigma, loopholes in the law and a lack of mental healthcare providers.

“But we still believe, we still know that he has a future and we need him to have a positive future.”

Virginia Tech has counseling available for all faculty, staff and students. The counseling center has extended hours over the weekend and staff will be available at different events.