Sen. Deeds Is Right

Mental Health Laws Need Fixing

Posted: January 18, 2014

The tragic incident last year that injured Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and took the life of his son has increased the focus of the 2014 General Assembly on how the state deals with mental health emergencies.

In this terrible episode, Sen. Deeds’ son attacked his father and then took his own life after being released from an emergency custody order. In the aftermath, his father wants changes to the system, and as a state senator, is in a perfect position to affect that.

As the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, Deeds “told a Senate subcommittee that time means everything when someone is being held involuntarily for evaluation in a psychiatric emergency.”

“Every single one of these situations is life-and-death — every single one,” he told a Senate Education and Health subcommittee. “You have to treat them with urgency.”

Mr. Deeds was attacked by his son after a temporary detention order expired when a search for a bed at an appropriate psychiatric facility could not be located within the legal timeframe and the younger Deeds had to be released in accordance with the law.

To address this problem, many proposals have been put forth, but what may come out of the General Assembly really comes down to two issues.

The first is improving access to available treatment options. On Thursday, the subcommittee endorsed a proposal championed by Deeds “to require Virginia to create a web-based registry of state, private, and local psychiatric beds to save time for emergency workers to find appropriate facilities for people who pose a danger to themselves or others,” the RTD noted. This should happen without fail, and at the earliest possible time.

The second part of addressing this issue will bring more debate. The matter of how long a person can be held under an emergency custody order is a more sensitive issue, balancing individual rights with personal and public safety, and we expect it may be harder to find a consensus on it.

The Senate Education and Health subcommittee considered multiple bills that would extend the time limit for an emergency custody order. As Michael Martz reported for the RTD, “The committee consolidated the bills into two proposals — one for 24 hours and one for an additional two.” The current law allows the temporary order to remain in force for a maximum of six hours.

This is the area that will bring the most divergent views. Sen. Deeds, for his part, favors the 24-hour custody order, and his own personal experience makes a strong case for the change. Mr. Deeds lives in rural Bath County, and when his son experienced a crisis, the deputy that took his son into custody had to drive him to another location for evaluation and then someone had to be dispatched from an hour away.

This process took two hours, and the RTD reminds us that the clinician dispatched had to then drive to get a magistrate to extend the original 4 hour order. Clearly, the system, as currently designed, needs to be changed.

For their part, law enforcement officers have concerns about extending the time to 24 hours, as they are charged with staying with the individual until an appropriate bed is found. We understand that potential burden but don’t accept it as a reason for the General Assembly not to move forward with the change.

The American Civil Liberties Union has also weighed in, questioning at what point those held against their will should be entitled to a hearing and whether holding them in non-medical facilities for a longer period would be harmful.

There are no easy answers in the field of mental health, and other proposals to increase access to beds and establish more assessment centers will also be considered this year.

But, the crisis begins on the front lines, and the proposals to improve immediate access to available services and increase the time for a temporary custody order to 24 hours are a good place to start.

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