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Mental health care at focus of debate following Conn. massacre

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TWC News: Mental health care at focus of debate following Conn. massacre
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Students in Newtown, Conn. returned to school Tuesday for the first time since Friday's mass shooting at an elementary school.

Across the country, gun control and mental health support have dominated the course of public debate.

Here in Austin, police are already stepping up their training and response to handle an increasing number of mental illness calls.

"If you go to our county jail, our community court, you're going to find a lot of people who have mental health issues," Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said.

To keep up with the volume of these types of calls, Chief Acevedo recently made changes to the way officers respond.

"It has come upon us as a police department to respond in a manner with sufficient resources, where we have a better likelihood of taking a person into protective custody or custody in a safe manner, where nobody gets hurt or killed, and that's truly our intent and hope in this new response protocol," he said.

While police work to handle situations that escalate as a result of untreated mental health issues, local health officials are working to prevent these disorders from ever escalating to that level.

"The whole emphasis in our country is prevention," Claire Hill with the Family Prevention Program-ATCIC said. "The sad thing is our country is also cutting back on funding."

When it comes to mental health funding, the state of Texas ranks dead last. According to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the state spends just 36 dollars per person compared to the national average of 109 dollars.

"A lot of folks are falling beneath that social net, and so unfortunately the police department quite frequently has to respond to help control situations where people, as a result of mental illness, are acting in a bizarre and sometimes violent manner," Acevedo said.

From a person's day-to-day life, family, friends, even the community, the trickle-down effect of a mental health disorder can stretch far. But there is help.

"Medication can help, and so can therapy, and so can a loving environment where they feel safe," Hill said.

If you think you or someone you know might be struggling with a mental health issue, there are resources in Central Texas.

You can call the Austin Travis County crisis hotline 24 hours a day at (512) 472-HELP.

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