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Lawmaker, nearly killed by son, works to improve mental health care in Virginia

BATH COUNTY, Va. -- Hope is the only thing stronger than fear. That is the message that hangs on the wall behind the register at a diner on Route 220 in Bath County, about three hours west of Richmond.

This part of the Shenandoah Valley is best known for scenic overlooks, sprawling farmland, and other natural splendors. It’s also home to the picturesque town of Hot Springs.

Near the end of Main Street, inside a tiny law office, you’ll find a state lawmaker who has devoted his life to fixing a problem that many fear is getting worse.

Life has been a series of “what if's” for Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds.

Creigh Deeds

In 2005, the Democrat ran for Attorney General, and lost one of the closest elections in state history. Four years later, in 2009, he was defeated in the Virginia governor’s race.

But almost exactly four years later, Deeds suffered his greatest loss. It had nothing to do with politics.

On November 19, 2013, Deeds was attacked and repeatedly stabbed inside his home.

The culprit? His own son.

A short time later, 24-year-old Gus Deeds shot and killed himself.

In the days that followed, we learned the younger Deeds had been diagnosed as bipolar.

His behavior had grown increasingly paranoid and delusional.

We also learned that hours before the attack, his father Creigh brought him to a hospital, concerned he might hurt himself. But when mental health workers could not find a psychiatric bed for him, Gus was released.

Gus Deeds

Creigh Deeds said the system failed that night. Ever since, he’s been trying to make a better one.

"You know, it drives me every day, it’s one of the reasons I get out of bed in the morning," Deeds said.

Just months after his son’s death, Deeds formed a commission to examine Virginia’s mental health care system. The goal was to come up with ways to make it more efficient.

"I was determined when I took this on in 2014 that we not be so crisis driven, that we try to keep a focus on this and keep a face on the problems," he explained.

One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to build a workforce to meet the need.

"Some of our hospitals, the job is really tough, it’s hard to attract people to do that sort of work," he said.

Deeds said that one of the biggest successes of his commission concerns emergency custody orders – which are court issued mandates that allow police to temporarily detain people in the throes of mental breakdown.

Before his son’s death, those orders expired after six hours, if no psychiatric bed could be located.

It has now been increased to eight hours, with the possibility of an additional four.

Creigh Deeds

Deeds said that gives mental health professionals more time to evaluate a patient, and determine exactly what they need.

"Sometimes a person is just in crisis and you can figure out how to address that crisis if you have a little more time to do it," he said. "Maybe they won’t need to be hospitalized, maybe they just need a prescription."

He’s also proud of a bill just signed into law, that requires 9th and 10th grade student learn mental health awareness. Virginia is only the second state in the nation to have such a requirement.

The idea was first brought to Deeds by a group of Albemarle students. He said he believed it would help save a young person in crisis. A person like his son Gus.

"The reason why this is so important, 70 percent of those people with mental illness first have an episode between the ages of 14 and 24," he explained.

But like anything, when government adds a new service, it comes with a price tag.

Deeds said lawmakers have made mental health funding a top priority.

"If you include everything for behavioral health it’s like $192 million for behavioral health, which is more than we’ve ever done before," he said.

But he admits, in some cases, we’re not spending that money wisely.

"Fifty percent of our money is spent in institutions that serve two percent of our consumer base, that imbalance is out of line with the rest of the country," he said.

Instead, Deeds wants to see more money invested in CSBs – the publicly funded community services boards that provide mental health and substance abuse services to thousands of Virginians, especially those who don’t have insurance.

"We need to make sure we have services in place, so that we’re just not releasing people onto the street," he said.

And that brings us to the reason why we reached out to Senator Deeds in the first place. It was all because of something that was said back in February, when we spoke to a Dinwiddie man whose family was also torn apart by mental illness.

John Daryl Ridley, of Dinwiddie, was charged with the murder of his wheel-chair bound uncle.

A few days before the killing, Ridley checked himself into the hospital. He told doctors he was having homicidal and suicidal thoughts.

While there, he attacked another patient.

A judge ordered he be held in a psychiatric facility for seven days.

Daryl Ridley

But Ridley was released early and within 48 hours, investigators said he killed his uncle.

While reporting this story, we met George Ridley, the victim's brother also an uncle to suspect John Daryl Ridley.

Over the course of an incredibly powerful and emotional interview, George told the story of how his nephew’s mental illness, and the failure of the system, torn their family apart.

"For our people that are supposed to be taking care of our mentally ill -- they just turn the other way and that's not right," he said.

While we were talking to him, the subject of Creigh Deeds came up.

"Our legislators ought to see to it that we've had so many incidents that they've let people that’s mentally ill back out on street and they've taken someone's life, we had a congressman or legislator... a senator, yeah, that his son beat him and cut him up... and we still haven't done anything… it doesn’t make sense," he lamented.

If a powerful lawmaker like Deeds could not get help for his own son, Ridley said he felt like there was no hope for anyone. We asked the senator how he felt when he heard stories like Ridley's.

"It’s just a feeling of failure, it really is," Deeds said. "I hear this man, and I hurt for his situation, but I think we have done some things since the situation that I went through."

Things like what Deeds calls the “bed of last resort” law. It requires state hospitals accept anyone under a temporary detention order, if no bed can be found anywhere else.

George Ridley

Unfortunately, the law has caused Virginia’s state hospitals to become overcrowded, according to experts.

"We had a week in February this past year when we had less than 10 beds available, statewide, in our public system," Deeds said. "Now that scared the daylights out of a whole lot of people, including me."

It also helped shine a spotlight on the problems plaguing Central State, the hospital that houses some of the Richmond’s area’s most violent mentally ill patients.

"It’s out of date, it’s held together with duct tape," Deeds said. "It’s difficult to recruit staff there because of the condition it’s in, it’s not very therapeutic in layout, it is, in my view, both staff and the patients are endangered with the way it’s put together."

Unsettling words, especially since the hospital is now the home of John Daryl Ridley.

Figuring out how to rebuild Central State is one of Deeds’ top priorities. Other legislators, both Democrat and Republican, feel the same way, he said.

Deeds said many lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle, have united to fix the mental health care system and said the recently approved medicaid expansion in Virginia could be a game changer.

Creigh Deeds

"Medicaid expansion could mean hundreds of millions of dollars more money for mental health services," he said.

Creigh Deeds has endured a tragedy that could have left him a broken man. But instead, it made him stronger and more resolved.

"I’ve said to people that mental health reform is kind of like eating an elephant, you take a bite, you feel real satisfied, and then open your eyes and look at everything you still have to do," Deeds said.

The senator from Bath County said Virginia now has an opportunity to become a national leader when it comes to the treatment of the mentally ill. And it’s a movement he’s willing to be the face of, scars and all.

"Back in 2014, the surgeons wanted to work on my face, and they had plans and all this, and we did some things, and then they weren’t finished," Deeds said. "And I said, hold on a second, you know, it might help me be more effective if people can constantly be reminded that I’ve struggled with some of these issues in a personal way... it’s certainly motivated me and it’s helped me stay focused on what we have to do."