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McDonnell's mental health proposals could benefit area

By Katie Demeria

Gov. Bob McDonnell has proposed spending $38 million on improving various mental health services in Virginia, and many of those areas may hugely benefit behavioral services offered throughout the Shenandoah Valley.

The funding is largely aimed at expanding what hospitals are currently allowed to do by law when helping a patient in need of mental health services, especially during emergencies.

Some of McDonnell's proposals include expanding emergency custody orders, temporary detention orders, the availability of secure crisis intervention teams and assessment centers, and expanding bed capacities at Eastern State Hospital and Western State Hospital.

In a statement released on his website, McDonnell said that the Virginia Tech tragedy is just one example that "Virginians have experienced tremendous heartache as a result of mental health tragedies." He went on to say that it is important that individuals have access to the help they need in a timely manner.

The funding was proposed on Dec. 10, three weeks after the son of Sen. Creigh Deeds stabbed his father and shot himself, just after being released from psychiatric care.

"Providing mental health has rarely been a tremendous priority for many people, and for the Commonwealth, and unfortunately it usually becomes crisis driven," Dr. Tom Cardwell of Shenandoah Memorial Hospital's behavioral health unit said. "People who do not have experience with it usually do not have a great deal of awareness for it."

Cardwell's thoughts were echoed by Buddy Hall, the executive officer of Northwestern Community Services.

"There is a stigma," Hall said. "But they don't really understand it unless it happens to a family member or themselves, and then they think more about it otherwise. It's like any other disease: we're more astute in our knowledge of it if it affects our family members."

Hall said that funding toward mental health services would always be helpful, though in the case of McDonnell's proposal, it depends on how that money is allocated.

An area that Hall is especially interested in expanding is early intervention with kids. NCS spends a great deal of time working in schools, attempting to diagnose illnesses earlier Hall said.

"It's like anything else," he added. "The sooner treatment starts after diagnosis, the better. Our case manager will bring them to see one of our psychiatrists, and a lot of those behaviors disappear within a year or two."

McDonnell has proposed expanding mental health outpatient services, which will benefit teenagers and young adults when, according to the press release, "engagement in treatment is imperative."

Hall added that the funds that would go toward ensuring additional beds in hospitals would, of course, be beneficial all around.

Randy Reed, director of behavioral health services at Winchester Medical Center, which offers both inpatient and outpatient services, said that the proposed changes addressed a lot of the areas of mental health service that should be addressed.

"I think [the funds] would have a positive impact, and those of us that are involved in behavioral health here at the hospital would be very supportive of the proposals," Reed said.

The crisis assessment centers, Reed said, would be particularly helpful, allowing patients to go to these centers in order to be assessed rather than being sent straight to the emergency room.

"We would also favor an extension of the temporary detention order timeframe," Reed added.

Shenandoah Memorial Hospital offers outpatient care, and, like Reed and Hall, Cardwell thinks that any extra funding would be useful.

For Cardwell, one issue that must be dealt with regularly is sorting through the patients who constantly want to come in to get help and those that frequently lose interest in regular treatment.

"How do you get people who want care into the appointments that are available?" Cardwell said. "I would imagine to some extent telepsychiatry might help you to be more efficient, and get care to more people."

Telepsychiatry is an area toward which McDonnell wants to increase funding. It would allow physicians to use telecommunication equipment to work with patients offsite.

Winchester Medical Center and Northwestern Community Services already take advantage of telepsychiatry tools.

"It's very useful for us because, since we're part of Valley Health, we can work with patients at other hospitals in the area," Reed said.

He added that the work could be useful to a larger range of hospitals in Virginia, but it would depend on the type of area they serve.

For Cardwell, Hall, and Reed, any additional funding toward mental health would be useful, as it is an area that is too often overlooked.

"I think people feel like, in the region, mental health is sometimes underserved," Cardwell said. "Hopefully the Governor's proposals would help fill out the areas that really need it."

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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