Virginia Mental Health Task Force Goes to Work

A Virginia mental health task force charged with making changes to help those in crisis started its work Tuesday.

Gov. Bob McDonnell created the panel in response to the November tragedy involving Democratic State Sen. Creigh Deeds and his son.

"Everyone who's worked here the last two decades knows Creigh Deeds, knows he's a good man and is suffering right alongside of him, knowing what he's endured with Austin, so we are going to do everything we can to make changes this session," McDonnell told reporters after addressing the task force.

The deadly incident Nov. 19 at Creigh Deeds’ Bath County home came just a day after the lawmaker sought an emergency mental health placement for his 24-year-old son, Austin Deeds. An emergency custody order was issued for Austin Deeds, but a bed at a facility could not be found before the order expired. The next morning, Deeds stabbed his father, then turned a shotgun on himself.

As Sen. Deeds returns to his work at the Capitol Wednesday for the start of the 2014 legislative session, Gov. McDonnell hopes the task force's creation sends an important message.

"What we want to do is take a wholesale look at the system to find out what it is that state government can possibly do to make sure we are 100 percent right 100 percent of the time,” he said. “The nature of mental illness is that we're not going to achieve that goal, but we'll shoot for it."

Fairfax mother Rhonda VanLowe is a member of the panel. Her adult son faced mental health challenges as he entered college. He's now stable, working and living on his own, but VanLowe says the Deeds incident hit her hard.

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"My heart breaks because you remember that first day when your child experiences a psychotic break," said VanLowe. "I can tell you one of the most difficult experiences that you'll ever have in your life."

VanLowe hopes the panel will look beyond short term fixes and expand its work to include more complex solutions.

"It's not just the immediate fixing," said VanLowe. "For me it’s all about creating appropriate opportunities for people to fulfill their lives. My son deserves a life, he deserves to have a high quality of life and he can achieve that. He's going to need support in order to do that. The families need support in order to keep their family members engaged and part of the community."

The task force has been instructed by the governor to start its work with recommendations that might be tackled during the 2014 legislative session. It will report next on Jan. 28 with those ideas. It will spend the rest of the year working on more complex changes.

Sen. Deeds has already moved ahead to his own legislative proposals, filing three bills dealing with mental health issues.

One measure would increase the amount of time an emergency custody order can be in effect from the current maximum of six hours to a new maximum of 24 hours.

Deeds also wants a registry of available psychiatric beds to be created so those needing care are not turned away during a mental health crisis. At the task force meeting Tuesday, state officials reported that plans for a registry maintained at public hospitals has already been developed and will be tested soon.

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