RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Heather LaRossa’s dog April is her lifeline. She describes her childhood as ‘one trauma after another.’ As an adult, four spine surgeries ended her truck driver and horse trainer careers.
“April gives me a reason to keep on going. She really does,” LaRossa says. “Now that I’m unable to work, everything in my past is coming back at me.”
Depression is casting a shadow on her life, and LaRossa says getting effective treatments is often easier said than done.
“I know what it feels like to be in pain and nobody to understand what you’re going through,” LaRossa laments.
“Changes definitely have to occur, and I hope they’re sooner rather than later,” says Kathy Harkey, Executive Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Central Virginia.
Harkey advocates at the Virginia General Assembly every year. To save lives, Harkey says it is critical patients in Virginia have more immediate access to care and families can legally intervene before loved ones spiral.
“The laws block us,” Harkey explains. “They say that the person must be a danger to self or others before we can step in and get them help.”
Pat Myers remembers the nightmare 13-years ago when she had to call 911 to get help for her son Justin who was battling bipolar disorder.
“My son was maced in our home and carried out on the front porch and hosed down in our community,” Myers describes a moment she will never forget.
Since that time, more police officers in more departments across Virginia have Crisis Intervention Training, but it is not standard.
Very little pertaining to mental health is standard in Virginia, according to Delegate Peter Farrell.
“Essentially we have 40 different mental health systems in our state, not just one,” he says. “A lot of localities, a lot of counties have their own. Some are contracted regionally with other counties, so it really is a patchwork of mental health systems which speaks to, I think, the inconsistency of service in the state.”
Farrell, a Republican representing the 56th District made up of Louisa and parts of Goochland, Henrico, and Spotsylvania Counties, is a member of the Joint Subcommittee on Mental Health led by Democratic Senator Creigh Deeds. On November 19, 2013, Deeds’ son Gus, who was battling bipolar disorder, stabbed his father and then took his own life. The incident prompted lawmakers to begin closely looking at Virginia’s mental health system.
Farrell applauds the bipartisan effort that created a statewide psychiatric beds registry and extended the length of time to find beds for people under emergency detention orders. However, he says all the changes thus far are designed for a crisis response.
“We still do not do a very good job at all of preventative care,” says Farrell. “We need to spend more money on mental health, especially upfront services. If somebody calls or needs to contact or needs someplace to go for help, we need to provide them with a resource that they can talk to somebody in 24 hours.”
Research shows lives are at stake. In May 2015, the National Institute of Mental Health reported one in five Americans suffers from a diagnosable mental illness.
“That speaks volumes to the need that exists in our community, and the resources are just not there,” says Traci Jones, one local advocate who founded Rise Phoenix Rise to help fill the voids.
The nonprofit partners with BARK in Ashland to offer individuals therapeutic activities with shelter animals. She got the idea after watching her own daughter, who thrived around animals, struggle with mental health.
Myers co-founded another local effort, Family Advocacy Creating Education and Services (FACES). It offers support to loved ones of those with mental illnesses while they navigate the system.
“People have to be aware of what’s going on before any changes can be made,” says Myers.
Her son Justin was only 20-years-old when he took his life. His family had been trying to get him an appointment with a psychiatrist.
A shortage of psychiatrists is an issue Harkey says only continues to get worse.
“If you just go online and google psychiatrists in Richmond and vicinity or surrounding counties, a lot of them come up with the little yellow triangle saying we’re not accepting new patients,” Harkey describes a common scenario.
Harkey would support measures creating more telehealth and primary care physicians partnering with psychiatrists to offer care.
Until there are more resources, LaRossa will remain thankful for the support she gets from groups like Rise Phoenix Rise.
“I need that,” she admits.
Her life and the lives of countless others depends on it.
“I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to deal with the pain no more.”
Mental health is expected to be a hot topic at the upcoming General Assembly session. Farrell says the subcommittee will meet in December once more to discuss potential bills.