DINWIDDIE COUNTY, Va. (WRIC ) — Mental health advocacy organizations like Virginia National Alliance for Mental Illness are calling for mental health reform after the death of 28-year-old Irvo Otieno who — amid a mental health crisis — was suffocated and died at Dinwiddie’s Central State Hospital while in the custody of Henrico Sherriff’s deputies.
This incident sparked people across Virginia to sound the alarm on the state’s approach to behavioral health.
Virginia’s General Assembly has been at a stalemate in approving the state’s budget, which, in part, includes Governor Glenn Youngkin’s proposed “Right Help, Right Now” plan. The plan encapsulates efforts behavioral health advocates feel could significantly improve the way situations like Otieno’s are handled.
Virginia state Senator Creigh Deeds got emotional in an interview with 8News as he recalled the release of video showing Otieno’s death.
“This young man didn’t have to die,” Deeds said. “I’m just heartbroken about the whole situation.”
Earlier this week, Governor Youngkin reiterated his enthusiasm behind his $230 million plan to tackle the state of mental health resource accessibility in Virginia.
“The heart wrenching nature of the challenges of our behavioral health system,” Youngkin started. “I think it’s so important we press forward with aggressive transformation of that system.”
This transformation will be partially cultivated in the form of increased funding to grow the mental health workforce and promoting de-escalation techniques. Deeds specified these changes would devote around $150 million towards crisis response programming.
Creeds said proper training for all officers responding to persons in distress would be a “Godsend” if it happens.
“We can’t force people to see the humanity in other human beings,” Creeds said. “And that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
Other pieces of Youngkin’s six-pronged plan will expand school-based treatment and includes an investment in mobile crisis teams.
Deeds additionally underlined measures like bumping behavioral health workers’ pay, increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates and learning to prevent mental health crisis rather than relying on response.
He explained how Virginia needs more workers, but clarified he doesn’t just mean staffers. He, along with organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia (NAMI Virginia), want to see people with sufficient training, those equipped to recognize and care for humanity, employed.
“Our complacency at the suffering of others is — it reveals a deeper problem in society and people,” Deeds said. “We need to maybe do a better job of looking out for each other.”
On Tuesday, March 21, NAMI Virginia offered their own statement on Otieno’s death and the need for mental health reform in Virginia.
“NAMI Virginia is deeply saddened by the senseless and horrific death of Irvo Otieno,” NAMI’s statement read. “Virginia’s mental health system has been in need of revamping for years! Virginia’s criminal justice system is not equipped to respond to mental health medical emergencies. Mental illness is a medical issue, not a criminal issue.”
As the state General Assembly remains hung up in debate over the governor’s budget proposal, Deeds noted the obstacle to finalizing the budget stems from the General Assembly’s desire to essentially do it all and is unable to narrow down which matters beckon the greatest funding and priority. These include, but are not limited to, the desire to address mental health resources, to invest in education, cut taxes and more.
Deeds remains hopeful the recent incident could be a wake-up call and increase urgency to expedite the budget approval process so leaders can get started on tackling mental health efforts.