Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Another Virginia Warning Call

What minimal mental health treatment reforms made in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy are at risk of being undone, the latest result of tight budget cuts.

Advocates are issuing a warning call in hopes that Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine will hault the looming cutbacks from putting more people at risk.

“It will be a real setback, both locally and statewide,” said Tom Spurock, the father of a son with a severe mental illness and a tireless advocate for better treatment.

As a result of the 2007 shootings of 32 Virginia Tech students by Seung-Hui Cho, the state clarified the criteria before a person can be involuntarily committed to treatment and established minimal procedures for assisted outpatient treatment.  Cho had been ordered outpatient treatment but disappeared after making only one appointment at a clinic and never showed up again before he opened fire on the campus. 

Spurlock and other advocates wanted to see the reforms go much further, and brought closer inline with laws in New York, Louisiana, Idaho, and other states that have made major treatment reforms.  Governor Kaine signed the legislation, but he too would have liked to have seen more reforms.

The pending cuts would place a state mental health system already near exhaustion over the edge.  With a serious shortage of psychiatric hospital beds, overcrowded emergency rooms unable to provide psychiatric treatment, jails struggling to care for inmates who have no other place to go, and too many loopholes still left in treatment laws, now is not the time to make cuts.

Indeed, Virginia and other states are facing tough budget times.  Cutting vital mental health services, however, will prove penny wise and pound foolish.  There is a better prescription for Virginia’s mental health woes.  Governor Kaine should place a protective shield around mental health issues so to help ensure there is no sequel to the 2007 tragedy and he should ask the state assembly to take a closer look at making Virginia’s treatment laws a model for the rest of the nation.  Doing so would build a living memorial to those who lost their lives that fateful April day.