What Is Community Mental Health?

A smiling family, two adults and two children, gather in the community.

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.

Community Mental Health Treatment

Across the U.S., community mental health centers provide services to people in crisis who need it.

Who Receives Community Mental Health Treatment?

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.

How Can a Person Access Community Mental Health?

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.

Who Works for Community Mental Health?

Community mental health teams include specialists from many different fields. People who work for community mental health centers include:

  • Counselors
  • Therapists
  • Peer support specialists
  • Psychiatrists
  • Psychologists
  • Nurses
  • Certified nursing assistants (CNAs)
  • Social workers

Together, they oversee the care of and service provision for the following needs of their patients:

  • Emotional
  • Physical
  • Psychosocial
  • Therapeutic

Examples of frequently administered services at community mental health centers include case management services, employment support, and services for substance misuse.

What Services Do Community Mental Health Centers Provide?

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.

Assertive Community Treatment (ACT)

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.

Culturally Responsive Care: Why It’s Important

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.

What to Strive For

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

Hone the Skills to Support Community Health

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.

What Is Healthcare Equity?

How Big Data in Health Care Influences Patient Outcomes

Guide to a Career in Public Health Research

Sources

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Community Mental Health Centers

HRSA, Shortage Areas

Louisiana Department of Health, Community Mental Health Center

Louisiana Department of Health, Office of Behavioral Health – Mental Health Services

National Alliance on Mental Illness, “The Importance of Community and Mental Health”

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Treatment Settings

National Association of Community Health Centers, "What Is a Community Health Center?"

National Council for Mental Wellbeing, “Community Mental Health Act”

NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, "Role of Community Health Workers"