Family mental illness is a top trending issue thanks to Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds’ speaking up on 60 minutes.
The story of how Deeds was slashed and stabbed repeatedly last November by his son Gus, who then took his own life, feels like a galvanizing moment.
But in listening to the president’s State of the Union Address tonight, not a word was heard about mental illness, apart from a passing reference to the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting.
It was an impressive act of courage for Deeds to liberate the nation from naive notions about the availability of mental health treatment–even for the sturdier pillars of society–for one night only. But my inner cynic tells me our restless nation has already returned to its obliviousness. Only fellow families truly stay with this story.
In case you didn’t catch the 60 Minutes piece, the pair had been in an emergency room just hours before the attack but didn’t get the help that they needed. The lawmaker found he had nowhere to turn for help for his musically talented son when his bipolar disorder exploded into full-blown psychosis.
The interview makes for riveting television because it’s unusual to hear a family go public. “I really don’t want Gus to be defined by his illness,” Deeds says movingly.
“I don’t want Gus to be defined by what happened on the 19th. Gus was a great kid. He was a perfect son. It’s clear the system failed. It’s clear that it failed Gus. It killed Gus.”
There’s a tenderness there that’s hard to forget, mostly because it’s not often that men speak publically about deeply-felt personal tragedy. Talking about this stuff is harder for many a man than opening an oyster without a knife, and yet here was this guy, this father, literally wearing the scars of his son’s attack on his face.
For now, Creigh Deed is the indelible face of family madness. He is the face of the severe damage that untreated mental illness inflicts on millions of families.
We all mourn the passing of his son, a banjo-picking young man who was breezing through William & Mary, by all accounts completely normal, when he slipped over the falls.
If we all have sympathy, some of us realize that the laments of the next family’s untreated tragedy lie right around the corner. At least those of us out there in TV land who find this story so familiar see that behind Gus Deeds stands the next avoidable death, and behind each one of them there stands countless more still.
Notes found later in a diary told the full story of how the voices had badgered him into believing his father was evil and needed to be executed. No one should ever doubt how real these voices were to him.
In the Virginia Senate, Deeds has introduced legislation to expand ER custody from six to 24 hours and to compile a database of all open psychiatric beds statewide.
Let’s hope more state legislation follows suit elsewhere.
Another problem is that insurance typically pays for care only so long as the patient is at imminent risk of harming himself or others. Normally it’s never more than two or three days even though most patients need help lasting for years.
“There’s just a lack of equity in the way we, as a society, and certainly as a government and insurance industry, medical industry, with the way we look at mental health issues,” Deeds complains.
“Don’t want to fund it. Don’t want to talk about it. Don’t want to see it,” 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley says, summing it up.
“Absolutely,” Deeds replies. “That’s exactly right. But the reality is, it’s everywhere.”
Deeds is right about the ubiquity of psychosis. Sadly, his family story is not unusual. It’s a rare small town in Ameica that has not seen psychosis.
To underscore the point, Pelley then interviews seven Connecticut mothers who share some of their own ER horror stories.
Says Deeds of his late son: “If he could have been hospitalized that night, they could’ve gotten him medicated, and I could have worked to get Gus in some sort of long-term care.”
It’s one of those stories too powerful to be snubbed by the competition. Sure enough, CNN picked up on the tragedy on Monday, interviewing the Virginia lawmaker again.
And for one mother the Deeds story was enough of a motivator for her to make her own video about her efforts to get help for her hallucinating son, a boy taunted by his voices, the same sort of voices that sent the younger Deeds to his death.
All this human drama helps enormously, but the basic problem is that the deinstitutionalization of the last 40 years has been a bust.
Because the promised residential care to replace a drop from half a million to fewer than 100,000 psychiatric beds out there has yet to materialize. Do the math.
Since 2008 some $4.5 billion in mental health care funding has been slashed by the states nationwide. Do the math again.
Now count the number living with a diagnosis of bipolar or schizophrenia who take their own lives: One in ten.
The dimensions of the mental health crisis in America are absolutely mind boggling. Gus Deeds–the great kid, the perfect son–is but the latest face of nameless millions.
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Last reviewed: 29 Jan 2014