Jul 21, 5:18 PM EDT

Va. panel promises changes in mental health system



RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Lawmakers on a newly formed panel on Monday promised a top-to-bottom review of Virginia's mental health system with the goal of making it a model for the rest of the country.

The panel's first act was to elect state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, as its chairman. Deeds has made improving the state's mental health system his top priority following his mentally ill son's suicide last year. Gus Deeds stabbed his father then killed himself hours after he was released from emergency custody because mental health officials could not find an available psychiatric bed in the time allotted by law.

The General Assembly passed several bills earlier this year in response to Gus Deeds' suicide, including one establishing the new joint subcommittee to study mental health.

"Lord knows that I would do anything if we didn't have those circumstances, but we have them," said Deeds. "We have a chance now to do something right."

The panel has four years to review the state's mental health programs and suggest possible changes.

Lawmakers were briefed on mental health systems in other states as well as some of the current problems facing Virginia's.

Some of the testimony was about the need for early intervention and preventative care, which Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Commissioner Debra Ferguson said is underfunded in Virginia.

"Investment in these services pay rich dividends," Ferguson said.

A recent study showed that 42 percent of people who received an emergency psychiatric evaluation were not receiving mental health treatment at the time of the evaluation, according to Senior Assistant Attorney General Allyson Tysinger.

Mental health panels are not new to Virginia. Delegate Rob Bell, an Albemarle County Republican, said he has now served on three such panels, including one formed after a mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.

Deeds said the current panel has a broad mandate and urged lawmakers to act with a sense of urgency.

"My goal is that we do very big things," he said.

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