Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cho, Kennedy and other tragedies in Virginia

Today’s Washington Post explores Virginia’s restrictive commitment standard that requires “imminent danger” before a person can be ordered into treatment.

Any mention of “imminent danger” and Virginia’s broken mental health system conjures images of 32 students killed at Virginia Tech by Seung Hui Cho in April of 2007 and memorials for the two officers killed by Michael Kennedy in May 2006. Both Cho and Kennedy had fallen through the gaping cracks of Virginia’s archaic mental health system.

For all of the Virginia Tech and Michael Kennedy stories that grab our attention, there are hundreds more private tragedies that don’t make the news. Virginia families are left helpless as their loved one becomes homeless, threatens suicide, is violent, or victimized. Until their loved one is an “imminent danger”, there is little they can do but wait.

This morning’s Washington Post provides a glimpse into one of the many families in Virginia that was forced to wait.

The Reston man who advocates eliminating the standard called for help recently after his son obsessed that federal authorities were eavesdropping on him. He destroyed a toilet and punched holes in the wall. Fairfax's Mobile Crisis Unit came to their home and "agreed that he was very disturbed," the man said. "But in their judgment, what he was saying and doing would not pass the threshold for imminent danger. And having sat through these hearings before, I had to agree with them."

A few weeks later, with what his father described as "a crazed look in his eyes," the young man attacked his father. The father called police, and the son was arrested. He is being treated in a mental hospital while awaiting trial on an assault charge. It took the criminal charge to get the young man held.

"Ideally, when we see terrible things happening," the father said, "we should have been able, before that point was reached, to say, 'This kid is in danger and needs to be treated.' We just couldn't get past that threshold."

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