State Delegate John O’Bannon, a neurologist who represents part of Richmond and Henrico County, serves as the chairman of a General Assembly commission dedicated to improving Virginia’s mental health services. With the legislature preparing to convene in January, we asked about his commission’s progress.
Style: Where do things stand with the committee right now?
O’Bannon: I think it’s worth taking mental health challenges in Virginia in the big picture. We had a terrible event in 2007 at Virginia Tech, and there was a commission after that that Governor Kaine sponsored. We came up with a pretty significant list of things we could do to try to fix that and we put new funds to that, and then the recession hit in 2008. Much of it didn’t ever get sent to where it could actually be helpful. With the tragedy of Senator Deeds and his son, we have an opportunity to substantially fix that system.
What are some of the ways you’re looking to do that?
I think the folks that do the work at Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services would tell you they have fixed the problem of a patient who needs a bed and doesn’t have one. The state hospitals will be a bed of last resort. What happened with Senator Deeds’ son should not happen again, and they’re tracking that. We’re more efficiently tracking patients when they get into crisis. We have crisis intervention centers. We have one at St. Joseph’s Villa in Henrico for adolescents. We also have drop-off centers.
The drop off-centers are very efficient. We now have between 20 and 30 around the state, and the goal is to have one within two hours of every citizen in Virginia. So we’re working through that acute problem. I know Henrico is interested in what they call mental health first aid — it allows a fireman or a policeman or somebody involved with the public to identify someone who’s in crisis.
Has any of this work been stalled by the fight over Medicare?
With all the cuts we have endured in the last nine months, we have not touched the mental health funding. We’ve all agreed we should not do that. It hasn’t happened, and I don’t think it’s likely to happen. Hopefully we won’t fall back and not execute the things we’ve tried to put in place.