‘Societal consequences’

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the fourth and last in a series of stories on the crisis of mental health treatment for juveniles in Western Tidewater.

While the state grapples with funding mental health services for mentally ill individuals in Virginia, the hidden costs bubble just beneath the surface, ready to boil over.

Time lost from work. Disrupted education. Criminal prosecutions. Physical injuries. Homeless people.

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“There’s societal consequences,” said Rachel Lewis, Comprehensive Services Act coordinator for the city of Suffolk. “There are very few adult programs. If they can’t stay home, where do they go? They can’t manage an apartment on their own. They don’t have a job. It’s a cycle.”

Local efforts to break the cycle have been underway for some time. Earlier this year, the area’s first Crisis Intervention Team was formed, encouraging partnership between mental health providers and law enforcement in an effort to divert mental patients from the law enforcement system. The Suffolk Police Department sent all its dispatchers and several officers through the training.

“Why would we want to incarcerate somebody because of a mental illness?” Karen Nicely, a clinical administrator for the Western Tidewater Community Services Board, asked during a meeting this summer on the new crisis team.

Suffolk Magistrate Sean Dolan, who is a member of the CIT because of his office’s position in issuing emergency custody orders, said he “firmly believes that is a positive step.”

Statewide efforts are underway, too, in the wake of a tragedy that hit the family of Sen. Creigh Deeds in November, when his adult son stabbed his father at their Bath County home before shooting and killing himself.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has proposed pumping more than $38 million into the system, including money to extend emergency custody orders for another two hours if a person needs to be hospitalized and a bed has not been found in the six hours currently allowed.

The additional funding, if approved, also would broaden availability of crisis intervention team centers, maintain or expand bed capacity at the state’s mental hospitals and augment treatment and support services.

Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe applauded the steps, saying he would work with the General Assembly “to build upon the solid foundation Governor McDonnell laid.”

The state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services also called the governor’s proposals “a substantial step forward,” but also noted that challenges remain, including gaps in even the base level of services in some communities. The department is taking steps to address its challenges and has made many strides in recent years, spokeswoman Meghan McGuire said in an emailed response to questions.

Delegate Chris Jones (R-76), recently named to the powerful position of chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he is pleased with McDonnell’s recommendations.

“I’m pleased he’s made it a focus to put significant money toward the initiative,” Jones said. “We’ve made a lot of progress in the last several years, but there is much left to be done and I’m pleased the governor has taken the initiative.”

But families who are struggling with mental illness every day wonder why help is taking so long coming — and why it appears a tragedy had to happen to a lawmaker to get some publicity and action.

“I hate the fact Creigh Deeds’ kid died behind it, but it brought attention to the matter,” said Suffolk’s Lauren Samuels, (not her real name), whose 14-year-old son has left her blood on the wall and dents in the door during his rages.

“That kid should never have died, and he should have never been released. We shouldn’t have to beg for help until something catastrophic happens.”