By Maria Rachal
Three years after an attack on a Virginia state senator exposed weaknesses in mental health services for the Rockbridge area, a state grant has funded a new mental health assessment center in Lexington.
Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital is now home to a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) assessment center, where law enforcement officers can take individuals experiencing a mental health crisis to receive better psychiatric attention.
There are currently 27 operational CIT assessment centers in Virginia, and 35 CIT programs in various stages of development. Though the local center quietly began providing service Oct. 3, it was not officially dedicated until November.
The center has a wide reach – it’s open for use by Lexington, Buena Vista, and Rockbridge and Bath County police, as well as officers from Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University.
Rockbridge Area Community Services (RACS), which administers emergency and non-emergency mental health care for the area, was responsible for securing a two-year, $540,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services that made the new service possible.
Through the grant, RACS was able to hire a mental health pre-screener, while the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office added two CIT-trained deputy positions. Professionals from both offices staff the center on a rotating schedule.
John Young, executive director of Rockbridge Area Community Services, said that the organization was competitive for the grant money due to growth in the Rockbridge and Bath CIT training program, which pre-dates the newly opened center by about seven years.
“The goal of the program is really to de-escalate situations better, fundamentally with the training,” he said, “and also, secondarily, really convert folks from having to be arrested and treated in a criminal manner and actually guide them toward more reasonable treatment options as a first resort.”
Young added that the assessment site is designed to avoid placing a financial burden on patients.
“The patient is not initially admitted to the emergency room, so they don’t initially incur any costs from medical care,” he said.
Young said he expects to receive continuation funding from the state once the initial grant expires.
Officials say that besides being a win for patients, the center is also a huge benefit to police, who could sometimes be taken away from their posts for eight hours trying to find readily available psychiatric care for patients.
“It’s designed for us to have a more efficient place to take persons who are in custody, who are having a mental health crisis,” said Lieutenant Steve Funkhouser of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, who is involved with the CIT program and was integral in the establishment of the center. “Having the assessment site frees up our patrol officers.”
And according to Young, the grant is an economical investment on the state’s part.
“The cost savings to localities is trickling down to the state as well,” he said. “The state normally has to help pay for the cost of officers having to do this type of work with overtime.”
The center’s jurisdiction all falls under the 25th District for the Virginia General Assembly, which has been represented by Sen. Creigh Deeds since 2001.
On Nov. 19, 2013, Deeds was repeatedly stabbed by his 24-year-old son, Gus, who proceeded to take his own life. Just hours before the fatal incident, Deeds sought care for Gus, who suffered from bipolar disorder, through a six-hour emergency custody order. During that time, RACS failed to locate an open psychiatric bed – a requirement in receiving a 72-hour temporary detention order – and Deeds had to take his son home.
Deeds has since been the force behind numerous Virginia mental health reforms, including a 2014 law that doubled the time allowed to find a bed and added a “bed of last resort” provision that requires state hospitals to admit individuals under emergency custody orders when necessary.
In January of 2016, Deeds filed a $6 million wrongful death lawsuit against the state of Virginia, alleging that the RACS employees who handled Gus’ case were negligent.
As for the RACS-backed assessment center, “it’s a nice step forward,” Deeds said in an email to the Rockbridge Report.
Young said that despite recent progress, he has many ideas for future improvements to local and statewide mental health practices, including possible expansion of the assessment center to allow for walk-in use and increased availability of psychiatric assessors in emergency rooms.
He’d especially like to see the link broken between finding a bed and committing a patient for psychiatric help.
“I just think the location of a bed is secondary to the determination that someone needs to be committed,” he said.
And more possible reforms are on the horizon. On Tuesday, a Virginia mental health commission revealed a number of bills for the General Assembly to review when it convenes in January, including ones aimed at improving the equity of mental health funding throughout the state.
On the national level, the U.S. Senate resoundingly passed the 21st Century Cures Act on Wednesday, which would increase federal grant money for psychologists and psychiatrists, and fight for greater uniformity between physical and mental health care. The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature.