Increased mental health calls raise concerns

Increased mental health calls raise concerns

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The Newtown, Connecticut shootings have put a national spotlight on mental illness. In Austin, it's an issue police are encountering more of as officers make more committals each year.

In 2007, the Austin Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team had 6361 reports with 1251 peace officer emergency committals. Each year, both numbers continue to increase. In 2008, C.I.T. had 6558 reports with 1277 peace officer emergency committals. In 2009, C.I.T. had 7203 reports with 1690 committals. In 2010, C.I.T. had 7881 reports and 2045 committals. In 2011, C.I.T. had 9026 and 2540 committals. And as of November 2012, C.I.T. had 9283 with 3132 peace officer emergency committals.

C.I.T.'s job is to recognize people in crisis and get them help. Officers also conduct follow up checks with those who haven't been committed. Sgt. Michael King says the team is so busy, the unit may expand.

"A lack of resources overall for the treatment of mental health in the community and we have to work within that the best we can with our little puzzle and our little bit of the puzzle is to be able to take someone's freedom and try to get them help by taking them to the psychiatric hospital or emergency room."

Here's how police are involved. When 911 is called, one of APD's or the Travis County Sheriff's Office certified mental health officers, responds.

They have the option of making a peace officer emergency committal where the person is held for 48 hours, pending a doctor's exam.

But if beds at the three psychiatric hospitals are full, which is a daily issue, then officers take the person to the closest emergency room. Making matters worse, there's a waiting list of around 200 people with severe mental illness trying to get help.

Dr. James Van Norman with Austin Travis County Integral Care says they are budgeted to treat 3,000 people every month. Instead, they treat twice that, between 6,000 to 6,500.

"We know there's a huge need out there in the community and there are people living in the Greenbelt, camping out who have psychiatric illnesses that may not even come in for services."

Lack of money, lack of psychiatrists and plenty of stigma attached to mental illness are challenges facing those who suffer from mental illness and those who help them.

Texas ranks at the bottom when it comes to funding for mental health in the country. And until that changes, experts say police will continue to take those who need mental health treatment to jail instead.

Dr. Van Norman says he is concerned the Connecticut shooting will increase the stigma attached to the mentally ill.

He says the fact of the matter is those who have mental illness have a higher chance of becoming a victim of crime and not someone who commits a crime.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the 24/7 crisis hotline 472-HELP.

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