03/31/2014 03:57 EDT | Updated 05/31/2014 05:59 EDT

U.S. Senator Creigh Deeds bearing scars, seeks mental health care changes

Virginia state senator Creigh Deeds says the scars on his face from when his son attacked him with a knife last fall are helping to push mental health reform forward in his state.

“Nobody lost sight of our incredible needs in the area of mental health, not this session when I was there every day with scars and tears. I promise you I have not lost my focus or sense of urgency,” Deeds told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Monday about his return to work just six weeks after the incident.

“I was red-eyed and red-faced – that kept it in the forefront,” he said. “My scars aren’t going away.”

His physical scars are on display but so are his emotional ones. Deeds fought back tears as he told the audience that one of his goals in speaking publicly about his experience is to ensure his son Gus is remembered more for his living than his dying.

“In every sense of the word my son was my hero,” Deeds said, going on to describe how smart, talented and kind his child was.

Deeds was stabbed numerous times by Gus on Nov. 19, before the 24-year-old took his own life. His son had struggled with mental illness for years, had been in and out of the hospital and on and off medications.

A day before the attack, Deeds tried to get help for his son. He was evaluated but not hospitalized because there were thought to be no beds available in private facilities or public ones and medical officials didn’t think he was suicidal. The law at the time allowed Gus to be kept in custody under a temporary order for four hours while he was evaluated, then he was sent home with his father.

Virginia can be a model for other states

“I think what happened was a system failure,” Deeds said.

The senator didn’t recount details of those days in November and said he wouldn’t take questions about what happened. He focused instead on the need to de-stigmatize mental illness, the struggles families face when a member becomes sick, the changes to Virginia’s mental system that have been made so far, and what might be coming in the future.

He talked about the need to have open, honest conversations about mental illness. 

“As a society, we treat mental illness so much differently than we treat other illnesses,” Deeds said during his speech. “If my son had cancer or heart disease, we would have known what to do … with mental illness, there is no assurance.”

The first changes that Deeds started pushing for once he recovered from his injuries and went back to work related to crisis intervention. An online real-time registry showing available spaces in treatment facilities in Virginia is now up and running and it is now mandated by law that if a private facility bed can’t be found, a hospital bed must be provided. A comprehensive four-year study of Virigina’s mental health system is also underway.

Other tweaks to the law were made that Deeds said will save lives, but he also described them as incremental and said “now the real work begins.”

He’s hoping Virginia will be a model for the rest of the country because there are broken systems and tragedies happening all over the country. It’s an opportunity for his state to lead the way, he said.

He talked about his motivation to turn his family’s tragedy into something positive.

“I could either be lost in my grief or I could act. I chose to act,” he said.

“Events last fall took my son, but I survived,” Deeds said. “I hope the result of my survival is that my son is remembered for his living and not for his dying, that we improve our laws and prevent future tragedies and we de-stigmatize mental illness and put mental health care on equal footing.”