Richmond, VA – Senator Creigh Deeds returned to the General Assembly less than two months after surviving an attack by his son, determined to pass laws addressing Virginia's mental health crisis.
These were some of the last words Gus Deeds ever heard.
"I said Gus, I love you so much. Don't make this any worse than it is," said Sen. Creigh Deeds.
Nothing Creigh Deeds could say that November morning could stop his son from doing the unthinkable. In a brutal attack from behind, Gus Deeds stopped short of stabbing his father to death, before taking his own life.
"I'd like to think that at some point in that attack, the old Gus came back," said Deeds. "I'd like to think that, wanna believe that."
"The fact that he would have to bury his own son, when his son was obviously going through so much," said Rheanna Morris, a former mental health patient. "The system was so broken that they couldn't help him. In way it reminds me a little bit of my story."
Like Gus Deeds, Rheanna struggles with bipolar disorder.
"I started self-harming and then my moods ended up becoming erratic and I ended up having a suicide attempt," said Morris. "What if I hadn't been able to get into a hospital and they sent me home? I would have ended up killing myself probably."
That ‘what if' Morris was so worried about became reality for the Deeds family. When an emergency custody order expired last November, Gus was sent home, instead of to a psychiatric hospital.
"I had done everything I could the day before," said Deeds. "It's not like he's my son, so I can automatically enroll him in a hospital somewhere. He's an adult. Everything that I had done the day before, we tried and we'd been rejected. My son was allowed to suffer."
"It's much easier, because you do have that control, as a parent. When they're 18, you lose that control," said Peggy Sinclair-Morris, Rheanna's mother.
Peggy Sinclair-Morris could make sure Rheanna, her then minor daughter, was taking her medication and keeping her appointments. Yet Sinclair-Morris still remembers a helpless type of feeling when Rheanna needed help.
"Waiting for your psychiatrist to call back and say OK, you can go to this hospital and they do have a bed for you," said Sinclair-Morris. "Worrying, what if they don't? What if something's not available? "
"Citizens have the right to know and to feel that it's going to work in a time of need and in a time of crisis," said Mira Signer, Virginia Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Mira Signer has been the Virginia director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for more than six years.
"It's true that we've been on a roller coaster, really since about 2008, which was the session immediately after Virginia Tech, when there was a lot of attention paid," said Signer. "A lot of action and there was a big package of funding that was added, but then the recession hit and that money virtually disappeared."
"I think coming out of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, we actually took some of the best action anyone has taken in the entire nation on mental health," said Sen. Steve Newman.
Yet six regular General Assembly sessions later, State Sen. Steve Newman and his fellow lawmakers are this year considering some 40 mental health related bills. They'll also decide whether to spend $38 million on mental health care improvements proposed by former Governor Bob McDonnell.
"There are some costs to those plans, so we're going to have to work through some of the costs," said Newman.
"There has been kind of an erosion of funding for mental health services," said Ted Stryker, Centra Vice President for Mental Health Services.
Centra Vice President for Mental Health Services Ted Stryker serves on Virginia's latest task force on mental health.
"My hope is that doesn't happen here, that the funding that the governor has proposed is fully adopted by our legislative body and those become permanent funding sources for the providers in this community," said Stryker.
"Memories can be short," said Signer. "It would be just as equal of a tragedy if we found ourselves three or four years down the road, with the funding being chipped away at."
Lawmakers however must be concerned with the bottom line. For Rheanna, who believes the human cost could have been as high for her as it was for Gus Deeds, that bottom line has nothing to do with the money.
"This isn't about passing a law," said Morris. "This is about saving lives."
Sen. Deeds himself authored three bills to address mental health services in the Senate of Virginia. His hope is that when people look at his son's face, they'll see beyond the tragedy.
"I'm determined that Gus not be remembered just for his illness and what ended his life," said Deeds.
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