People experiencing mental health crises — ranging from substance misuse to schizophrenia — need support. In the United States, 1 in 5 adults experienced some form of mental illness in 2019 (51.5 million people), and about 1 in 20 experience severe mental illness each year (13.1 million people), according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Community mental health care provides crisis care to people experiencing mental health challenges — often when a referral to a private therapist or clinician is impossible. Local governments operate centers for community mental health in the U.S. These community mental health centers offer support for people with serious mental health conditions that prevent them from functioning well day to day.
Across the U.S., community mental health centers provide services to people in crisis who need it.
Specialized community mental health services focus on the organization, management, and administration of resources to a focused group of people. Examples of targeted community mental health services include services tailored for:
- Children and youths
- Older individuals
- People who struggle with substance misuse
- People with severe mental health disorders (e.g., schizophrenia)
- People who have been discharged from inpatient mental health facilities
Many people who benefit from community mental health services receive financial support through Social Security disability benefits or rely on Medicaid to fund their treatments, according to NAMI.
Community mental health centers often offer emergency walk-in services. Mobile crisis units staffed by clinicians also exist to evaluate a person’s condition on-site, as needed. Emergency walk-in sites and mobile crisis units are designed to stabilize an individual, deescalate a crisis, and help the person determine their next steps.
Community mental health teams include specialists from many different fields. People who work for community mental health centers include:
- Peer support specialists
- Certified nursing assistants (CNAs)
- Social workers
Together, they oversee the care of and service provision for the following needs of their patients:
Examples of frequently administered services at community mental health centers include case management services, employment support, and services for substance misuse.
Community mental health centers offer an array of services. These include:
- Medication management
- Outpatient services
- Intensive community treatment services
- Case management
At times, community mental health centers partner with other mental health service providers to:
- Refer clients to day program services
- Help clients find stable employment
- Support clients who need residential treatment services (therapeutic or nontherapeutic)
According to Medicare’s definition of a community mental health center, a service provider must offer screening, outpatient therapy, rehabilitation, day treatment, and 24-hour emergency services to people with chronic mental health issues.
According to NAMI, some providers have adopted the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team-based care model to coordinate a client’s care. ACT is a flexible approach to community mental health. In this model, providers deliver services at community locations (e.g., a restaurant or public park), in homeless shelters, or at clients’ homes — rather than in a clinic. The services are flexible to fit clients’ schedules.
Beyond providing out-of-office treatment in a community setting or a client’s home, ACT principles include:
- Providing treatments designed to meet each person’s unique needs and help them reach their personal goals
- Helping clients gain access to essential services (e.g., food security and housing)
- Offering vocational support to help people gain employment and marketable skills
- Connecting with family members and social support networks, especially to help clients integrate into their communities.
Offering equitable and accessible mental health services in our communities starts with providing culturally responsive care. To be culturally responsive, mental health care must take into account the specific skills, narratives, and familial and social ties that shape a client’s identity, treating these unique factors as sources of resilience.
Culturally responsive care includes equitable services for people of all races, classes, ages, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, and religions.
To create environments in which culturally responsive care can happen, community mental health administrators and workers should advocate for:
- Hiring and training interpreters so that clients and clinicians can communicate in their native languages
- Providing ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training
- Creating a supportive supervisory environment in which employees are empowered to raise and address issues related to cultural insensitivities
Our community needs compassionate mental health leaders. Tulane University’s Online Master of Public Health program offers flexibility for students looking to sharpen their public health skills while working full time. Learn more about how Tulane’s Online MPH program supports graduates as they lead the way toward equitable community health.