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Mental health boost backed

RICHMOND—After the suicide of a state senator’s son brought renewed attention to Virginia’s mental health programs, Gov. Bob McDonnell will propose $38 million in additional funding for mental health services in the state budget.

McDonnell also is proposing to extend the amount of time a person in a mental health crisis can be kept in custody under an emergency custody order or a temporary detention order.

His announcement came days before McDonnell is scheduled to unveil his full two-year budget proposal to lawmakers next Monday.

McDonnell also issued an executive order Tuesday to create a task force on mental health to study ongoing needs in that area, including workforce and funding issues.

The new focus on mental health comes after state Sen. Creigh Deeds’ son Gus stabbed Deeds, then shot himself last month at their rural Bath County home. Gus Deeds had reportedly been under an emergency custody order for a mental health evaluation the previous day, but no psychiatric bed had been found for him, so he was sent home.

McDonnell and Secretary of Health and Human Resources William Hazel said during a Tuesday news conference that the state has been working to invest more in mental health services for several years, although the Deeds situation has brought more attention to the matter and to ways someone can fall through cracks in the system.

McDonnell had also created a school safety task force after last year’s Sandy Hook elementary school shooting.

“This is about fixing the system for all Virginians,” McDonnell said. “Overall, Virginia has a very, very good and competent mental health system. … But we’re always looking for ways to improve it.”

Much of the money McDonnell is proposing will be devoted to crisis-focused services.

He would provide new money to extend the emergency custody order time from a maximum of six hours to eight, only if a psychiatric bed for the person in custody cannot be found in the six hours.

He would also extend the temporary detention order time from 48 hours to 72 hours, which McDonnell said would cost close to $3 million over the two years of the budget.

Another prong of the proposal would expand crisis intervention team (CIT) centers—the centers provide a place for a person to be held for evaluation without a law enforcement officer having to remain with the person. McDonnell said the money he’s budgeting for that—$5.4 million—would support six centers in fiscal year 2015 and 12 in fiscal year 2016.

McDonnell also is suggesting putting more money into two state-run hospitals—Western State and Eastern State—to ensure those facilities have psychiatric beds available as a last resort for health workers trying to find a place for people in mental health crises.

He’s also proposing more money be put into mental health outpatient services focused on older teens and young adults—a time of life when serious mental illnesses can first show themselves —and into expansion of telepsychiatry, outreach programs for those with serious and chronic mental illnesses, and peer-support programs.

McDonnell said it’s the state’s duty to provide a “first-class safety net” for those suffering from mental illnesses.

“It is a disease and a disability that affects Virginians of all stripes,” McDonnell said.

Hazel said the state will have a new database of available psychiatric beds up and running by January. That would let crisis workers search for an available bed for someone being evaluated under an emergency custody order.

But, Hazel cautioned, that’s not a fix to the issue of people in crisis being released. The database is only as good as it’s updated by personnel at the hospitals, he said, and psychiatric bed availability is also dependent on hospitals having the personnel available who are trained to treat mental illness.

McDonnell’s new mental health task force is expected to extend beyond his term, which ends next month. He said incoming Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe is supportive of the budget proposals and the task force.

“Too many tragic events in this commonwealth have underscored the need for reforms and more resources when it comes to mental health and crisis response in Virginia,” McAuliffe said in a statement. “As governor I will work with the General Assembly to build upon the solid foundation Governor McDonnell laid today so that all Virginians can access the care and resources they need to live safe, healthy and productive lives here in the commonwealth.”

The task force will look at how Virginia provides community-based mental health services and how those services are coordinated between community services boards, hospitals, private providers, courts and so on.

The task force will consider whether the system’s crisis services need improvement, examine the emergency custody order and temporary detention order process, review availability of psychiatric beds, consider expansion of services that support people with mental illnesses, and evaluate whether there’s a need for a bigger workforce to provide the state’s mental health services.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028


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