NBC29 Special Report on Suicides: Sen. Deeds’ Story
Senator Creigh Deeds has first-hand knowledge of dealing with mental illness: Six years ago, his son Austin “Gus” Deeds attacked him, and then took his own life.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. (WVIR) - A push is on in the commonwealth to put a stop to a tragic trend: Suicide ranks as the 11th leading cause of death, and it is on the rise.
Senator Creigh Deeds has first-hand knowledge of dealing with mental illness: Six years ago, his son Austin “Gus” Deeds attacked him, and then took his own life. The senator has since turned the immense heartbreak of that day into a platform for change.
“Gus was just remarkable. I remember he was a left-hand guy, and left-hand banjo players are pretty rare," Deeds said. "He was started on the varsity soccer team at Bath County High School in ninth grade. He was a trombone player, he taught himself to play harmonica, taught himself to play piano."
Gus took a break from the College of William & Mary in the fall of 2009, and joined his dad as he campaigned to be Virginia's next governor.
“After the campaign didn’t work out, Gus decided to take another semester off,” Deeds recalled. “He stayed in Bath County with his mother. His mother and I were separated by that time.”
Eventually they divorced, but kept the communication open when it came to Gus.
“His mother texted me one morning, and she said, ‘Gus is gone. I just got up and found a note that Gus had gone for a ride.’ And a few days later, she got an email from Gus, or a text or something, of a ‘Welcome to Wyoming’ road sign," Deeds said.
The odd tangent worried the parents, and they reached out for counseling in the fall of 2010.
“He was diagnosed at that time with bipolar disorder,” the senator said. “It was after he was 20, 21-years-old. Before then there were never really any real signs that there was a problem."
Gus’ mental health only got worse the following year: “We were sitting at the table in the kitchen table, and he said, ‘Dad, I feel like I’m going to kill myself,” Deeds said.
He took Gus to the hospital.
“He looked at me. He said, ‘Dad, this is where I belong. I just have to get my medicine straight.’ And, you know, I felt so positive about that,” Deeds said.
Gus had another hospital stay a few months later. The family worked to keep their adult son on the straight and narrow, but Gus’ mood changed: “And when I’d ask him about medication or seeing a doctor, he would just bluntly tell me, ‘Dad, that’s none of your business,” Deeds said.
Gus returned to William & Mary in the fall of 2013, but came home before the end of the semester.
“That weekend I took Gus out to eat a couple times. He argued with me about things. He was clearly just delusional, but was still my son. My precious son,” the senator said.
He knew Gus needed immediate help, and tried to arrange a third hospital stay. But this time the state could not find a bed for Gus, and the young man who was so eager to help his father on the campaign trail turned cold.
Deeds planned to try again the next day, and traded a chilling text with Gus' mother: “She said get out of the house. I just texted her back, ‘I'm not going to leave my son.’ But I did latch the door into my bedroom… first time I've ever done that, and he was trying to get in that night. It was tough."
On the morning of November 19, 2013, Deeds headed to the barn to feed his chickens: “I had a feed bucket in my hand, and Gus was coming across the yard just marching,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Hey bud, sleep alright?’ And he said, ‘yeah,’ or he said, ‘morning,’ or something like that. And then I turned my back, and you know...”
Gus attacked his father, stabbing the senator several times before he was able to get away and called 911. Law enforcement quickly swooped in, and Deeds had to be flown to Charlottesville for medical treatment.
"I was in the helicopter, and they talked about… I heard on the radio, talking about a second victim,” he recalled.
Gus had ended his own life.
Once back at work in the legislature, the senator found support: “In 2014, with my face scarred and crying nearly all the time, you know, there were a lot of people that saw me and wanted to help. And a lot of those people knew Gus.”
Deeds went to work in the General Assembly: “We passed bed-of-last-resort legislation, so if someone is found to be a danger to themselves or others they they’re going to be hospitalized so a situation like that will not exist again.”
New laws were passed to lengthen the evaluation time for a person in crisis from four hours to eight hours, and the hospital hold time from 48 hours to 72 hours. In Gus’ case, another four hours might have revealed the state did have a bed for his son that night.
“He would have been alive if he’d been hospitalized that afternoon… he would have been alive that night, he would have been alive the next day," Deeds said.
The senator is pushing a platform called STEP (System Transformation, Excellence and Performance) Virginia. The program is focused on providing a uniform set of required services, consistent quality measures, and improved oversight in all commonwealth communities.
STEP Virginia is ongoing, and will take a few years to fully implement.
Here are the nuts and bolts of the plan:
- Improve access, increase quality, build consistency and strengthen accountability across the commonwealth’s public behavioral health system.
- Services should foster wellness for people with behavioral health disorders in everyday life to prevent crises before they arise.
- Reduce admissions to state and private hospitals.
- Decrease emergency room visits.
- Lower the number of people with behavioral health disorders who get involved with the criminal justice system.
Then-Governor Terry McAuliffe and the General Assembly set STEP Virginia in motion with nearly $9 million in 2017. This allowed an initial group of community services boards to put in place "same day access." This means if a person calls or appears at a CSB, like Region Ten, someone will assess them that day instead of possibly making them wait weeks for an appointment.
The General Assembly also required mental healthcare workers to put the remainder of STEP Virginia services in place over the next few years with lawmakers to allocate funding in the coming years.
- Implement same day access in the rest of the community service boards.
- Put primary care screening in place. For example, if somebody needs help for a behavioral health disorder, they also get primary care checks like a blood pressure measurement.
- Make sure all community service boards have tight links to medical providers.
This timely access to mental healthcare coupled with medical screenings is only the beginning.
The final focus will be on quality services that are consistent across the state, and accountability across service boards.
If you feel you need help, reach out, call somebody. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1800-273-8255, or the Crisis Text Line at 741-741, as well as Live Through This and SafeTALK. You can also contact Region Ten Community Services Board to get connected to services.
Information for parents and children can be found at the Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Children, Teens and Suicide Loss, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: I’ve Lost Someone, and Suicide Prevention Resource Center: Programs and Resources.
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