Time to ask different questions in mental health care

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds spends time with his son, Gus, left, on the road to Halifax, Va., between campaign events in 2009.(Photo: Hyunsoo Leo Kim, AP)

This week’s stabbing of a state senator in Virginia at the hands of his mentally ill son, who then took his own life, has now sparked the usual follow-up: “How could this happen?”

The question is a salve for the guilt of a nation: We knew about the situation and we let it happen. We’ve been doing it for generations.

For many years, people have been calling attention to the problem that seemed typical in the household of Sen. Creigh Deeds. He had a son with a mental illness, and when he tried to get help, he couldn’t get any.

For years, just about anyone in the same situation in Minnesota with a mentally ill child has been telling the story. You have a child in crisis, you call for help, but there are no psychiatric beds available in the Twin Cities. Maybe someone can find one for you in Fargo. If you’re lucky enough to get help, he/she is released from the hospital, coincidentally, right around the time the insurance company’s promise to pay for 10 days worth of care expires.

NPR’s story today — A Son’s Death Reveals Chasms In Emergency Mental Health Care — is, sadly, too typical and predictable in its narrative:

Early reports said the family had received an emergency custody order from a judge on Monday, the first step in getting a person involuntarily committed to a hospital in the state of Virginia. But then local health officials had to find a hospital bed.

For reasons that remain unclear, that didn’t happen. The custody order expired, and Gus Deeds was allowed to leave a local mental health facility. The state of Virginia has launched an investigation into the circumstances, the Associated Press Thursday.

When space can’t be found in a psychiatric hospital, Honberg [Ron Honberg, policy director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness] says, “families are basically left to fend for themselves.”

That it even gets to that point is a failure of a system that has been documented time and time again, most recently in an MPR News project this summer, and as far back as a project on the subject in 2004.

The lack of beds and lack of crisis help has been easing slightly in Minnesota, but the larger picture of access to mental health care remains clouded by a general indifference.