Monday was a sad day for all parties involved in this tragic event, and for the mental health community. NAMI Northern Virginia joins NAMI Virginia in sending warm thoughts to Congressman Connolly, his staff, and the Pham family.
Mr. Pham’s father, Hy Pham, told The Washington Post that his son has schizophrenia and has dealt with mental illness since his late teens. Due to Monday’s attack, Mr. Pham is now in the criminal justice system, a system not equipped to respond to mental health medical emergencies.
Symptoms of a mental health crisis manifest in different ways. For example, one may show signs of delusions, mania, or sadness. Although these symptoms might be difficult for many people to understand or identify, family members and caregivers often recognize the signs and comprehend that a crisis could result. Family members seek help for their loved ones, especially when they see a loved one’s mental health condition deteriorate. When family members reach out for help on their loved one’s behalf, they are turned away creating frustration in families. Families understand that sometimes one with serious mental illness is too sick to seek out help on their own. Laws must be reexamined to provide family members and caregivers recourse when symptoms show extreme deterioration of mental health. At the same time, the rights of individuals with mental illness must remain protected. Care for an individual with a deteriorating mental health condition must be forefront coupled with empathy and an understanding that mental illness is a treatable medical condition.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has started taking steps to transform the state’s mental health system. Transformation measures focus on providing a system that offers a variety of behavioral health medical and support services to meet individuals with mental illness where they are in their recovery. This work in Virginia, including the work being done locally in Northern Virginia, must continue with commitments and substantial funding to fix the broken behavioral health system found throughout Virginia.
Virginians were horrified earlier this year when video clips emerged showing the tragic results of a broken system when Mr. Otieno, a young man experiencing a mental health crisis, died. Mr. Otieno was met with force as opposed to medical intervention to treat his mental health condition. System change is needed now to provide individuals with the medical care they need, when they need it, to avoid negative outcomes.
NAMI Northern Virginia and NAMI Virginia continue to serve on the frontlines in advocacy for mental health services, funding, housing, workforce development, jail diversion programs, the use of compassionate, non-combative de-escalation training, increased mental health education, and the need to have knowledgeable, empathetic mental health professionals in a leading role in crisis situations to mitigate violent outcomes.
One in five Virginians experiences a mental illness each year. The population of Virginia in 2021 was 8,642,000 people. That means that 1,728,400 million of our friends, family, neighbors, and our other fellow Virginians, are affected by mental illness each year. In Northern Virginia, 750,000 adult residents (39 percent of the Northern Virginia population) are impacted. System transformation must continue to make great strides in Virginia's behavioral health system to provide compassionate behavioral healthcare and services and prevent injuries or death.