Suffolk doctor channels loss into action

Published 12:27 am Sunday, November 3, 2013

Mark Lawson, a gastroenterologist practicing in Suffolk, says his daughter was a model student before her mental breakdown.

“She was a straight-A student at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy,” Lawson said. “She had top-of-the-line SATs.”

But following a 10-year battle with bipolar disorder, Ashley Lawson lost her life to mental illness early this year at age 28.

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“In her junior year, she just had a meltdown,” her father said. “Although she would come back, she would never quite get back on her feet before she slid back down the hill.”

Lawson is speaking out in the hopes of improving access to mental health services in Virginia.

He’s promoting a nonprofit recently created to that end by Tucker Corprew of Norfolk, in memory of her son, Chas Corprew, who also lost his life to mental illness.

The Chas Foundation will hold its first fundraiser at Norfolk’s Talbot Hall Nov. 9 from 2 to 6 p.m., with entertainment by bluegrass band Larry Keel and Natural Bridge.

“We are currently providing clothes and toiletries to the Norfolk Community Service Board’s Crisis Stabilization Center for the mentally ill,” Corprew stated in a news release.

“We are exploring further programs to support the mentally ill in Norfolk and the entire Hampton Roads community through outreach to community service boards (as well as) the local chapters of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and other mental health non-profits.”

Lawson said despite the fact he’s a physician, the deterioration of services and resources for Virginia’s mentally ill was a large contributor to his daughter’s demise.

“A major shift occurred years ago, closing state-controlled facilities and mental health care and putting it (in the hands of) communities,” he said.

In 2006, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill — the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization — gave Virginia’s mental health system a “D” ranking.

Between 2007 and 2012, the number of patients served by state psychiatric hospitals actually declined almost 17 percent to just more than 4,700, the alliance says.

Meanwhile, the alliance’s Virginia chapter says more than 1.1 million Virginians currently suffer from severe mental illness, and 330,000 need urgent treatment every year.

Lawson said current HIPAA laws make it difficult for families to provide information to health care professionals on mentally ill family members.

They have scant opportunity to provide feedback on how medicines are working or when hospitalization is required, he said.

“We would have to call crisis intervention, and a police officer would show up with a mental health social worker, and they would have to make the call whether the patient was a danger to themselves or to others,” he said.

Lawson said people need to know that community-based care of the mentally ill “is not working.”

“Basically, we have dumped this on the communities with no resources,” he said.

He also pointed to reports by the alliance’s Virginia chapter that the General Assembly removed $37.7 million of $42 million in new funding allocated to the mental health system after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech.

“There is nowhere for them to go,” Lawson said.

Tickets for the Chas Foundation fundraiser are $50 per person, including music, food, beer, wine and non-alcoholic beverages.

To purchase tickets and for more information, visit www.thechasfoundation.org.