The Nation's Pulse

Madness Takes Its Toll

The underlying outrage of the Deeds tragedy.

By 11.20.13


State Sen. Creigh Deeds was recovering Tuesday night at the University of Virginia Health System Hospital in Charlottesville, but the physical wounds from being stabbed multiple times were perhaps not as painful to Deeds as the knowledge that his assailant was his only son, who police say committed suicide after the stabbing.

There were still a lot of missing pieces Tuesday night in the story of how Austin “Gus” Deeds, who one hometown acquaintance described to the Washington Post as an “intelligent and happy-go-lucky” musician, ended up stabbing his father and then fatally shooting himself. But attention swiftly focused on a report by the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the younger Deeds had been in emergency custody for a psychiatric evaluation Monday. The 24-year-old “was evaluated Monday at Bath Community Hospital … but was released because no psychiatric bed could be located across a wide area of western Virginia,” Dennis Cropper, executive director of the Rockbridge County Community Services Board, told the newspaper. One of Sen. Deeds’ fellow legislators, state Sen. Richard Saslaw, said Tuesday’s tragedy was “preventable,” blaming a “breakdown in the mental health system” for the younger Deeds being turned loose Monday instead of being hospitalized.

Exactly what kind of mental health problem did Gus Deeds have? Media reports provided no details of the nature of his problem in the hours immediately following Tuesday’s shocking news. The fatal confrontation occurred at the Deeds home in the rural community of Millboro, about 20 miles from the West Virginia state line. If the senator’s son had a prior history of mental illness, it was kept quiet, although there were some small hints of trouble. In 2009, while his father was campaigning as the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, Gus Deeds was arrested for underage possession of alcohol, but the charge was subsequently dropped. Officials at the College of William & Mary said Tuesday that Deeds had withdrawn from the school in October, but did not explain why. Virginia state Del. David Toscano issued a statement saying, “Senator Deeds was very close to his son Gus, and has taken herculean efforts to help him over the years.”

What were those “herculean efforts,” and what kind of “help” did Gus Deeds need? There were no immediate answers in the scramble of early news reports. Schizophrenia often first manifests itself in patients in their late teens or early 20s, but depression and bipolar disorder are also common mental illnesses among young people, and there is of course the possibility that drugs played a role in Deeds’ descent into dangerous madness. Whatever the specifics of his problem, as an individual, the attention Tuesday was on the public policy issues that resulted in the unavailability of treatment when that problem finally reached crisis stage.

America’s approach to dealing with the mentally ill has undergone a revolution in the past 40 years. Long gone is the era, famously depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when the patient who got locked up in a state psychiatric institution had to prove himself sane enough to be released. Since the 1970s, a general policy of deinstitutionalization has meant that most people suffering from mental illness are treated on an out-patient basis, with strict legal limits on involuntary commitment, which is only for those who can be proven a danger to themselves or others. Deinstitutionalization has been facilitated by improvements in psychiatric medication, especially the development of advanced anti-depressants like Prozac and Paxil, known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Such drugs have side-effects, however, and outpatient treatment means that there is no supervision of whether the medications are being taken as prescribed, so that there is always the problem of people who are, in the colloquial phrase, “off their meds.”

Colloquial phrases for mental illness are frowned upon in an age where sympathy for the deranged is supposed to override our concern for public safety. To call them nuts, lunatics, or wackos might hurt their feelings or perpetuate a social stigma. People who pride themselves on being well-meaning, enlightened, and sophisticated — “the anointed,” as Thomas Sowell called them — regard the mentally ill as victims of society. Whenever a kook goes on a shooting rampage, the anointed always want to blame the gun and not the kook. “News Flash: Crazy People Are Dangerous,” was the headline I put on a blog post in September when Aaron Alexis, a kook who believed his brain was being controlled by “extremely low frequency” electromagnetic waves, went on a murderous spree at the Washington Navy Yard. It would seem like basic common sense that someone as delusional as Alexis was potentially dangerous, but common sense is politically incorrect and madness is increasingly widespread.

Our mental-health policies are perhaps symptomatic of a kind of insanity. When a shortage of bed space in psychiatric wards resulted in Gus Deeds being turned loose in the midst of a homicidal meltdown? That was just plain crazy. In a sane society, it wouldn’t take this kind of tragedy to bring attention to the problem, but America has been slowly going nuts for a long, long time.

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