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Disclaimer: My intention in writing this article is not to promote a stereotype that equates mental illness with violence, as I recognize that the vast majority of those who suffer from mental illness never become violent. I am simply attempting to highlight some of the most extreme and tragic consequences that can and have resulted, at least in part, due to a lack of access to adequate mental health care, notably in my home state.
As a transplant to New York from Southwest Virginia, I have a difficult time explaining my home to my fellow city-dwellers. Beautiful but rural, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, it is a place where every town is a small town in the middle of nowhere. My hometown barely even makes the map, much less the papers, so last Tuesday when I saw Creigh Deeds, a state Senator and former Gubernatorial candidate from nearby Bath County, in the national news, I was shocked.
Earlier that morning, Senator Deeds had been found hobbling towards the end of his driveway, crippled by multiple stab wounds he had suffered at the hands of his son, Gus. Gus, a recent dropout from the College of William & Mary, was found inside their home shortly thereafter, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The story confused me until I reached one small detail: Gus Deeds had undergone a psychiatric evaluation under an emergency custody order shortly before the incident, only to be turned away because the hospital conducting the evaluation could not locate a single open bed across a wide area of Western Virginia.
Suddenly, I was hit with a wave of understanding—for anyone else who has ever tried to seek mental health services in Southwest Virginia, this should be a familiar story, too. Hearing it in this context only drives the point home: If the son of a senator, someone with all the funds and resources in the world, is unable to access mental health care, imagine all the other people this is happening to who aren't making the news. This didn't happen because Senator Deeds' family lacked the financial security to pay for care. You could be the son of Bill Gates and still not have access to a psychiatrist in Southwest Virginia for the simple fact that there aren't any available.
My frustration about this issue comes partially from personal experience watching my family attempt to get mental healthcare for a close family member, Travis* in Radford, Virginia, a town just 20 minutes away from Virginia Tech. Travis struggles with multiple diagnoses including Asperger's Syndrome and transient psychosis, and for years, we have struggled with extreme ups and downs that have sometimes culminated in fears of violence.
In 2010, after Travis attempted suicide, he was shipped out to an emergency psychiatric facility about an hour away in Roanoke at the insistence of local law enforcement. He received care there but was released a week later, and since then his only "mental health care provider" has been the family pediatrician, who is not a trained psychiatrist or even psychologist, but has been the only physician within a 2 hour driving distance willing to renew Travis's prescriptions for the anti-psychotic medication he so desperately needs.
Getting an appointment with a real psychiatrist in Southwest Virginia is basically impossible—the nearest one is about 60 miles away, and even if you are willing to make the drive, you aren't guaranteed a spot. For those who aren't immediately turned away, there is a minimum 3 month waitlist.
To put things in perspective, this is a rural area where the rate of gun ownership is probably more than double the rate of college graduation. According to a local news outlet last year, the number of gun sales in Giles County, Virginia during the week following the Sandy Hook massacre was one of the highest in the nation. Did you know that Giles is just one county over (maybe 5 miles from the border) from Blacksburg, home to Virginia Tech, where 33 people were mowed down by a gunman in 2007?
How is it possible that mental health is still not a priority in an area that experienced one of the most significant mass shootings in our nation's history just a few years ago at the hands of someone who clearly needed this kind of help? Is it any surprise that this is still happening? I have no doubt that it will continue to happen, I just feel sorry for the mothers and fathers who will continue to fight and fail to get help for children they know are at risk, only to be blamed for the grotesque consequences of that failure later.
After April 16th, 2007, we were promised that mental health care would become a bigger priority in my home state and across the country. Alone, I can't offer a ready solution to the problem, but I hope that you and others can help me draw attention to this issue so that the people in charge are forced find a way to make good on those promises. This isn't an issue of social services—this is an issue of public safety. Virginia Tech, Newtown, and countless other incidents have left no question about that.
*Name has been changed