Mental Health Custody Issue Moves Forward

Feb 11, 2014

Sen. Creigh Deeds

A person in a mental health crisis may be kept in custody for evaluation for up to 24 hours under legislation that has cleared the Virginia Senate. 

The new, 24-hour limit passed over the objections of some in the law enforcement community, who worried that such a lengthy period may divert deputy sheriffs who are detaining the patient from other public safety priorities.

But the bill passed unanimously after an impassioned plea from the Senator who was most recently impacted by flaws in the state’s mental health system.

The bill is sponsored by Senator Creigh Deeds, whose son stabbed his father and took his own life after a psychiatric bed was not found for him within the current 4- to 6-hour limit for emergency detentions. His bill would also require an on-line, statewide registry of available psychiatric beds and authorize use of state facilities as a last resort.  Deeds said the bill would not fix everything, but would help save lives.

“The brain is part of the body. Yet we treat mental illness so much differently than we treat other physical illness—industry-wide, government-wide—as people.  In the movie adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Boo Radley is kept in a cage under the porch.  That’s the perfect metaphor for the way we treat mental illness. We’ve got to do better as a society.”

Including a new state involuntary commitment fund, the fiscal impact would range from $4.9 million to $9.4 million per year. The House gave initial approval to a series of bills with similar provisions. But one House measure would only extend the time limit for emergency custody to 8 hours—much less than the Senate bill.