After Austin "Gus" Deeds withdrew from the College of William & Mary last month, people tried to get him help. But after undergoing a mental health evaluation Monday, he reportedly was turned away because, an official said, there simply weren't any beds available.
By Tuesday morning, Gus, 24, was dead in what police are investigating as an attempted murder and suicide that landed his father, Virginia state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, in the hospital.
The tragedy that unfolded Tuesday highlights the insidious, often overlooked subject of mental health in a state still dealing with fallout from the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, when gunman Seung-hui Cho killed 32 people before taking his own life.
Mr. Deeds, suffering from multiple stab wounds in the head and torso, was upgraded from critical to fair condition Tuesday afternoon. Police said the Bath Democrat, 55, had an "altercation" with his son at his Millboro home, where authorities found Gus dead from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The story quickly turned into national news, but the situation of people being turned away from mental health treatment at state-run facilities or hospitals did not happen overnight.
The issue surfaced in a state report last year that said 200 people were denied mental health treatment from April 1, 2010, through March 31, 2011.
Gus Deeds was evaluated under an emergency custody order by mental health professionals and released Monday, Dennis Cropper, executive director of the Rockbridge County Community Services Board, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The custody order allowed him to be held for up to four hours to determine whether he could be placed under a temporary detention order. He was released after no psychiatric bed could be found, Mr. Cropper said.
A follow-up report from the state found that from July 15 through Oct. 13, 2011, temporary detention orders for 72 people in need of comprehensive evaluations to determine the proper levels of care were not executed.
"The 72 failed TDOs, who were denied admission to a state-operated hospital or a private psychiatric facility, may be Virginia's 'canary in the coal mine' warning us that the system has yet to create sufficient community capacity to serve our neighbors and family members who, decades ago, would have been treated in state-operated behavioral health facilities," the report says. "Without the clinical skill and dedication of ... emergency staff, our most vulnerable neighbors — and our communities — would have doubtless experienced many tragic outcomes."
In one case, a 22-year-old Virginia man who had been living in a group home was brought to an emergency room on July 18, 2011. He had been biting staff, pouring antifreeze, motor oil and cleaning fluid on himself and running into traffic. Voices were telling him to harm himself.
Other private hospitals declined to temporarily detain him either because of his severe condition or bed capacity problems. It took more than nine hours before an attending physician demanded that he be placed in the facility's psychiatric unit.
Police brought the same man to an emergency room July 28 for similar behavior. That time, it wasn't until he struck and injured a worker who had been attending to him that he was admitted to a psychiatric unit July 31.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia offered thoughts and prayers to Mr. Deeds and his family Tuesday.
The alliance pointed out that the likelihood of violence from people with mental illness is low and cautioned against speculation about what triggered the events.
The group said in a statement that mental health funding has been on a "roller coaster" in the state, with the General Assembly approving $42 million in the wake of Virginia Tech for mental health services such as case management, emergency services and outpatient services.
But heading into 2009, as Virginia's budget started to feel the effects of the national economic downturn, much of the funding was compromised, the group said.
"We were pleased that the Legislature approved new funding during the 2013 session for crisis services, jail diversion, discharge planning, and other critical services," said the statement provided by Mira Signer, the group's executive director. "It was a step in the right direction to strengthen Virginia's mental health system. We need to see more efforts like it in the future to shore up Virginia's mental health system and ensure that all who need access to it are able to get it."
News of the attack also surfaced just as gun control advocates were holding a news conference in Washington to mark the 20th anniversary of the federal Brady Law.
Sarah Brady, founder of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said initial reports of the incident showed the shortcomings of the argument that gun ownership is an effective defense in the case of home attacks or invasions.
"A decision to buy a gun is a personal one, and it should be thought of very carefully," she said.
Mr. Deeds is a strong Second Amendment advocate. As a state delegate, he sponsored a constitutional amendment in 1999 protecting the right to hunt in Virginia.
L. Douglas Wilder, the mercurial former governor of Virginia, declined to endorse Mr. Deeds' candidacy in 2009 in part because of the senator's opposition to a law championed by Mr. Wilder limiting handgun sales in Virginia to one per month. The law was repealed last year.
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said authorities recovered a firearm from the scene Tuesday, but she declined to provide additional details. Only Mr. Deeds and his son were at the house when the incident occurred, she said.
An official at William & Mary described Gus Deeds as a strong student. He first enrolled in 2007 but took a semester off to join his father on the campaign trail in 2009.
"He needs me and I need him," Mr. Deeds told a reporter in 2009 about campaigning with Gus.
"I've got to go through this campaign process, but that doesn't mean I've got to be completely separated from my family the whole time," he said.
Mr. Deeds has three other children. He and his first wife, Pam, divorced in 2010, and he married Siobhan, his current wife, last year.
"This is a terrible tragedy," said House Minority Leader David Toscano, Charlottesville Democrat. "Sen. Deeds was very close to his son Gus, and has taken herculean efforts to help him over the years. Our thoughts and prayers are with Creigh and the family at this difficult time."
• Nathan Porter contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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