A Tragic Case of Missing Mental Health Care

Austin Deeds showed just how important mental health care can be.

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Imagine you have chest pains. You are worried you might have a heart attack, so you go to the emergency room. They agree you are in big trouble – you have an ailment that could kill you or endanger others (if, for example, you were behind the wheel of a car). You're with trained medical professionals, people who know what your problem is and want to keep a close eye on you so tragedy doesn't occur.

Then they tell you, sorry, there are no beds here for you, or for that matter, anywhere in the region. You'll just have to go home and hope for the best.

It sounds like some Koch Brothers-produced TV ad against the Affordable Care Act, something meant to frighten people away from the new health care law. In fact, a version of this episode indeed happened. But because it involved mental health and not a physical ailment, it's not so surprising that there was no room for Austin Deeds of Virginia. When insurance companies are reluctant to cover a certain ailment, there simply aren't going to be as many beds available for patients. When states see mental health services as some sort of luxury treatment instead of a critical part of health care, there aren't going to be enough beds.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

Deeds didn't just go home to his own bed and wait to get better or just talk things out with friends and family. According to police, the young Deeds, who dropped out of college recently, stabbed his father, Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds, in the head and torso. Then he turned a second weapon, a gun, on himself, taking his own life.

The pain the Deeds family must be going through is unimaginable. An early death by a car crash or incurable illness is painful enough. The fact that Austin Deeds sought help, but was unable to get the critical care he needed, is even more tragic. An official told the Washington Post that numerous hospitals were called, and none had room for the troubled 24 year old. Local hospitals have been reducing and even eliminating psychiatric wards, the paper reported. What an awful piece of information that is to Deeds' parents, knowing that their son might have survived had he had some chance for medical attention.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Mental illness, sadly, is still a stigmatized condition. People (who misuse the word "depressed," anyway, using it to explain disappointment, rejection or just boredom) often don't understand that depression is a serious and tortuous illness. It can't be fixed by going out to the movies or "cheering up." It has been described as having a cancer on one's soul. The fact that it isn't visible in an X-ray is irrelevant to the fact of the malady. But it wasn't irrelevant to Deeds.

People who don't like the Affordable Care Act have complained that it forces people to pay for coverage (such as maternity care) that they may not ever use. Never mind that all insurance operates in that framework, with everyone being part of a pool of insureds that pays the collective cost of care. The ACA, notably, requires mental health parity, meaning insurance companies have to cover mental health care as well as physical health care. Assuredly, there are people who imagine they will never, ever need mental health treatment. Maybe Austin Deeds didn't think so. Imagine how differently the day might have gone if Austin indeed had been given a hospital bed.

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