Recently, a rural Virginia man, suffering from serious mental illness, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after stabbing his father sending him to the hospital. This tragedy exemplifies many things, including a mental health care system in Virginia that can leave those in crisis (and their families) to navigate a confusing labyrinth without many solutions.

The story of 24-year old Austin Deeds and his father, Virginia State Sen. Creigh Deeds, is unfortunately a now too common occurrence -- that during a mental health crisis, professional help will be hard to find.

The tragedy in Virginia is the unfortunate culmination of many failures in providing care to someone in need and someone who demonstrated clear signs that he could harm himself or others.

Although the Deeds were able to obtain a court order to commit their son to a hospital bed, local health officials were unable to locate somewhere for their son to go. Unfortunately, the psychotic episode that resulted in this tragedy may have been prevented with adequate and immediate psychiatric care.

I'd like to think that things in Vermont are better but as we struggle to replace our own state hospital, we have a long way to go.

United Counseling Service does provide immediate access to quality mental health care in Bennington County to assist people who have received a mental health diagnoses and need care to live safe and fulfilling lives. The ultimate goal is to provide sound case management and psychiatric care, implemented by a professional staff, to ensure these individuals are able to contribute in our community.

These services require state funding to ensure adequate care is provided to people in need. Unfortunately, while the demand nationally for services, both outpatient and inpatient, has increased exponentially, state investments in mental health across the country have decreased by billions of dollars.

Here in Vermont, the funding design of the state's community mental health centers does not allow for an increase in staffing as demand dictates. New federal legislation could improve that, through the creation of "Certified Community Behavioral Health Centers," which would allow for service providers to become federally designated and bolster the community mental health and addictions treatment system.

The Excellence in Mental Health Act (S.264) will facilitate the creation of these Centers through the establishment of a federal status for qualifying provider organizations that will give access to payment structures more in-line with the cost of providing mental health services. Because of federal support, organizations would be able to provide high quality care "to scale" and avoid being completely dependent on the tumultuous state budget process.

The creation of high quality community mental health service providers will work to prevent tragedies from happening in our communities. While UCS works to provide services to everyone in need, the national trend of increasing identification of individuals with mental illness is also being seen here in Bennington County.

There are two important follow-up points to make in relation to the tragedy in Virginia and the Excellence in Mental Health Act. The first is that a vast majority of individuals suffering from mental illness and developmental disabilities are more likely to be the crime victim than the crime perpetrator.

The other is that Vermont's own Sen. Patrick Leahy is a sponsor of S.264 and Senator Leahy should be applauded for his work in supporting the field of Mental Health. It is important that our other representatives support this initiative so that we can continue to provide high quality and professional mental health services to the people of Bennington County.

The people who need our help are our friends, neighbors, co-workers, parents, siblings, children, business partners, and community leaders. We know what can happen when those in need are placed on a waiting list. We also know that collectively we have the ability to improve the quality of life for those in need if we work together. 

Ralph Provenza is executive director at United Counseling Service in Bennington.