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Peter’s Take: Reform Virginia’s Mental Health System

by Peter Rousselot — January 23, 2014 at 1:30 pm 308 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotA tragic incident in Bath County, Va. — in which the son of State Sen. Creigh Deeds attacked his father with a knife and subsequently shot himself to death — once again has exposed the many flaws in Virginia’s public mental health system.

In another tragedy earlier last fall, a mentally-unstable employee of a government contractor, who had worked on many assignments around the Metro area (including in Arlington), shot multiple victims to death at the D.C. Navy Yard.

The Deeds incident brought into sharpest focus flaws in Virginia’s record keeping regarding the availability of openings to hold mentally ill individuals who might pose a danger to themselves or others. It also highlighted the need to re-examine standards for involuntary detention. However, I believe the mental health area that is most in need of reform is the longer-term care and treatment of individuals who cannot afford care for themselves.

At various points during their lives, large numbers of the mentally ill can be:

  • in school
  • in hospitals
  • in jail
  • living in a home
  • homeless
  • employed part time
  • unemployed

In any of those settings, these individuals can be: improving, stable, declining, or dangerous to themselves or others.

The challenge for Virginia is to develop a mental health system that provides comprehensive, consistent and continuous treatment for all eligible residents — regardless of in which of the above categories they happen to fall at any given time.

One key to improving treatment is to develop an electronic records system to capture critical information about diagnoses, past treatment and recommendations for the future. We must avoid a “silo” approach in which one or more Virginia public or non-profit institutions treat an individual for mental health issues, and then keep the information stored away where it cannot be accessed later by other mental health professionals. With due deference to patients’ privacy rights, such a records system must be accessible electronically by subsequent treatment providers.

A second key to improving treatment is a combination of increased state and local funding so that eligible individuals can receive appropriate care while living in the setting that best fits their mental health status.

Any of us could be the next victim of an act of violence perpetrated by a mentally-disturbed person. Let’s work together in a bipartisan way to reform Virginia’s mental health system.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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