National Press Club

Deeds: More mental health care reform needed in Virginia, nationally

March 31, 2014 | By Bill Miller |

Virgina state Sen. Creigh Deeds called for further mental-health-care reform in his state and across the country at a March 31 National Press Club luncheon.

Virgina state Sen. Creigh Deeds called for further mental-health-care reform in his state and across the country at a March 31 National Press Club luncheon.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Recent legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly to improve the state’s troubled mental-health system is only the first step in reform that is necessary not only in Virginia, but nationally, former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds told a National Press Club luncheon March 31.

“Now the real work begins. We’ve addressed the easy things,” said Deeds, a Virginia state senator who has led the push for stronger mental-health legislation following the suicide of his 24-year-old son last November.

His son's death helped shine a national spotlight on mental-health treatment. A day after Deeds’s son, Austin “Gus” Deeds, 24, was denied a psychiatric bed, he repeatedly stabbed his father before killing himself with a shotgun. Sen. Deeds was hospitalized three days with critical wounds.

Declining to discuss details of the stabbing and his son’s suicide, Deeds said that the mental-health issue “is much bigger than one individual’s experience."

He pointed out that one in four Americans suffer some form of mental illness.

"We have to bring mental health out into the daylight," Deeds said.

Deeds, who is from Bath County, Va., admitted that before the experience with his son, he, like most legislators, had not given much consideration to mental-health reform.

“I thought we only needed more money,” he said.

But his personal tragedy inspired him to lead the push for mental-health measures in the General Assembly.

"I could either be lost in my grief, or I could act," Deeds said. "I chose to act.”

Although the measures passed by the General Assembly before its adjournment in mid-March have been described as “modest” in press reports, they actually were significant, Deeds asserted.

“I’m convinced we will save some lives," he said.

Under Deeds’s spur, legislators voted to grant emergency mental-health clinicians more time to find a bed in a psychiatric hospital after a patient has been referred. If no bed is available, the state must provide a bed of last resort. The new legislation also sets up a real-time online registry of available psychiatric beds.

Had these measures been in place at the time, experts have noted, they might have averted the Deeds tragedy, as well as the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007 that killed 32 students.

Another significant piece of legislation has received little attention, according to Deeds. It's a measure that calls for a four-year commission to study Virginia’s mental-health system and identify further reforms.

The commission “will keep the mental-health issue in the forefront," Deeds said. "My mind is open. Everything is on the table.”

Deeds spoke tenderly of his son, who showed no evidence of psychological illness until he was 20. He noted that Austin was a gifted child who could recite Bible verses at age 3, had the best standardized test score in Bath County, was valedictorian of his high-school class and, among other things, was a songwriter, an entertainer and a soccer player.

“My son was my hero, in every sense of the word,” Deeds said, choking up.

Deeds was asked in the question period what advice he has for parents of mentally ill children.

“Show them love,” he said.