States should increase focus on mental illness

Christina Coleburn, Staff Columnist

A tragic incident involving a Virginia politician has revitalized the national conversation about the prioritization of mental health care. On Nov. 19, state senator and former gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds was stabbed multiple times by his 24-year-old son Austin Deeds, who took his own life after the altercation. A report from the Richmond Times-Dispatch revealed the young man was taken to a community hospital for a mental health evaluation on Nov. 18 under an emergency custody order. Although the son was evaluated, he was reportedly released hours later because of a shortage of psychiatric beds across a broad region of western Virginia. The state senator has since faulted the state agency for the lack of treatment of his son and vowed to work for positive change in the mental health care system.

The deadly altercation has brought the recurring psychiatric bed shortages back into the public consciousness, an issue mental health advocates say is responsible for many preventable violent acts. In 2010, the National Alliance on Mental Health estimated that about 262,000 adults and 82,000 children — out of Virginia’s approximately 7.8 million residents — have serious mental health conditions. NAMH also revealed that only 19 percent of adult Virginians with serious psychiatric conditions received mental health services from the state public system.

This problem is not specific to Virginia. Alarmingly, the Treatment Advocacy Center found that the number of state psychiatric beds decreased by 14 percent nationally from 2005 to 2010 because of state budget cuts. While the recession undoubtedly took a toll on fiscal allocation, states should intensify their focus on improving mental health care systems by revisiting both budgets and laws. Five states do not have assisted outpatient laws, while 42 states are estimated to have fewer than the bare minimum of psychiatric beds needed to address acute mental health needs.

Although changing these fundamental numbers would be costly, it is in the best interest of states to make the investment. Untreated mental illness costs the American economy at least $105 billion in lost productivity each year. Complacency with mental health care shortcomings is not only economically detrimental, but can also reap deadly consequences, as evinced by Deeds’ case.

Although the subjects of psychiatric illness and its treatment are indeed sensitive, they are unquestionably important, and perhaps best suited to be addressed on a state level. By reallocating budgets and reassessing laws, states can have a powerful impact on improving mental health care systems nationwide. As state legislatures determine mental health budget details for the coming years, they should recall the devastating consequences of untreated and undertreated mental illness. States must protect the welfare, safety and health of their constituents — improving mental health care falls under this jurisdiction.


A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Dec. 2 print edition. Christina Coleburn is a staff columnist. Email her at [email protected].