Their deaths motivate Winsome Earle Sears to improve mental healthcare in Virginia

Posted at 8:16 PM, Jun 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-10 20:16:10-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle Sears (R - Virginia) made history when she became the first woman elected to that position and the first woman of color elected to statewide office in Virginia.

While her success as a politician was recognized worldwide, her strength as a mother, who experienced unimaginable heartbreak, gave her even greater compassion to lead.

Sears’ 27-year-old daughter, Dejon, and her 5 and 7-year-old grandchildren, Faith and Victoria, were killed in a 2012 car crash in Fairfax, Virginia. Dejon suffered from mental illness, a condition she battled most of her adult life.

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“She got into a car one night and she was experiencing an episode,” Sears said. “We didn’t know she had stopped taking her medication. She was driving the car at 100 mph and ended up killing herself and our grandchildren and injuring another person.”

Sears said she and her husband, Terence, were raising their grandchildren while trying to help stabilize their daughter and find her the help that she needed. Before her death, Sears said Dejon was doing well on medication and was raising her own daughters.

The night they died, Sears said her daughter and grandchildren did not show up for bible study.

"You think about I should have done this, and I should have done that, but you know, you just…there are no right answers,” Sears said.

The loss devastated the family, including Sears’ two surviving daughters.

Paralyzed in grief, Sears said she was unable to face reality and turned to her husband for support.

“They’re supposed to bury us, not us bury them,” Sears said. “When you’re looking at three caskets, not one, not two, but three caskets in front of you and then you have surviving children, and you have to comfort them. God bless my husband because I don’t really know who was in those caskets.”

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Like many families dealing with mental illness, Sears said it wasn’t fully evident that her daughter was suffering from depression.

She said Dejon’s bipolar disorder symptoms did not appear until she was in college.

“The first time I had any inkling that my daughter had mental health problem was when the university called and said, ‘your daughter is in a psychiatric hospital, she has experienced a psychotic break,’” Sears said. “I was running for Congress at the time, and I had to come off the campaign to get her, sit with her, bring her back into reality, and help her.”

Sears said she and her husband were in and out of doctor’s offices and turned away from behavioral health facilities because of the lack of bed space.

Sears said she once had to take her daughter to Missouri for treatment. She said the years were agonizing for everyone in the family.

After Dejon’s death, Sears said she eventually found the personal strength and courage to fight for change.

She never imagined she would run for office again until the opportunity arose to run for Lt. Governor of Virginia.

Today, Sears said families face even greater post-pandemic challenges, including skyrocketing depression and anxiety, addiction issues, and violence.

Sears called the recent mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas was a cry for help among young people.

“They just arrested, in Florida, a 10-year-old who wants to go and shoot up his elementary school. Let’s examine what that really means, he wants to go and murder people!” Sears said. “If we come to the wrong problem, we’re going to find the wrong solutions. There’s a problem in our community and it’s happening at the younger and younger ages.”

Leading the Virginia Senate this session, Sears said she supported significantly more funding for mental health initiatives, including several bipartisan bills that funnel more money into behavioral health faculties and school support staff.

Siobhan Dunnavant, Winsome Earle-Sears
Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, left, talks with state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, right, during a Senate Session at the Capitol, Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Richmond, Va.

The recently passed budget includes $76 million for behavioral healthcare facilities, better access to bed space, and higher pay for mental healthcare workers. It also includes legislation led by Senator Jennifer McClellan (D - Richmond) to invest $270 million in support staff for schools, including nurses, social workers, and psychologists. Two and a half million dollars will go to a school-based mental health integration program, which will provide grants to school divisions to work with community-based providers.

The budget also includes $13.5 million to fund additional developmental disability waiver slots, a long-term support system for people with mental and developmental disabilities.

But Sears said even more needed to be done, because of the overwhelming need for support and roadblocks that some families continue to face in seeking affordable and accessible mental health assistance.

“We’ve got to find the money; we’ve got to prioritize,” Sears said. “There are things if we don’t address them, they are only going to get worse and mental health is absolutely one of them.”

While ten years have passed since the loss of her daughter and grandchildren, Sears said the pain never fully subsides. She said her faith and family continue to sustain her, while her passion for leadership gives her the strength to fight for others.

“I have God, I don’t know how anybody else does it, but I know that they’re in heaven,” Sears said. “The saying that time heals all wounds, it doesn’t. What it does is it helps you to cope better, but it really doesn’t heal.”

This segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.