Some 43 years after President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963 that instituted a nationwide network of community mental health centers, the system is failing. With continuing cuts in federal, state and local aid that fund these centers, the centers have fewer and fewer resources to carry out their mission. Sooner, rather than later, the problem must be addressed or many of the country’s most in need of assistance will go without.

What is a community mental health center?

The community mental health center was envisioned as a place that could take care of people who had mental health concerns, but couldn’t afford typical outpatient treatment. Begun in the 1960’s, the centers are locally based and generally vary in the types of resources they offer the community, but usually, at minimum, offer medications and psychotherapy for the mentally ill. One of their primary purposes was to move people away from the unhealthy, un-therapeutic conditions of state inpatient psychiatric hospitals, toward outpatient, community-based care.

Treatment of most mental health concerns is done through a variety (and usually a combination) of medications and psychotherapies. Without treatment, most people with mental disorders tend to not get better on their own, except over a very long period of time. What could take years to overcome without treatment takes just months with treatment. Most people’s mental health treatment are dictated by their employer’s health insurance program. Some health insurance is generous, allowing for near-equality of benefits for mental health concerns. Other health insurance funds virtually no mental health treatment, except in extreme, rare cases where inpatient hospitalization is needed.

Community mental health centers help fill the gap for those with little or no health insurance. Most charge what is called a “sliding scale fee,” which is a fee that is based upon the person’s income level and ability to pay. Some people can pay as little as $5 or $10 a session to see a professional and review their medications or obtain a session of psychotherapy. These fees don’t offset the costs of providing services, however. The difference is funded by federal, state and local grants and budgets through taxpayer dollars.

Some community mental health centers offer more than just medications and psychotherapy treatments, too. Better-funded centers offer a lifeline for the chronically mentally ill with day programs that help teach important social and work skills. Such programs offer a chance to socialize and find support with others who are coping with similar issues. The centers offer a home for community support groups, and a refuge from those who otherwise find it difficult to function well within “normal” society.

The Challenge of Community Mental Health

Community mental health centers often live on the fringe of the community however. They are not sometimes not well understood or appreciated for the wide array of services they provide to their community. Misconceptions abound about the people that a community mental health center serves, because it’s easier to distance oneself from such a resource of it’s about “those kind” of people.

The truth is, however, that most community mental health centers serve a decidedly middle-class America. People who are very poor are struggling with the basics of life – finding a job, putting food on the table, staying in reliable shelter, keeping a family together. They often do not have the time or energy to address mental health concerns. People who are doing a little better do have more time to address such concerns, but often don’t have the financial means necessary to do so. That’s where a community mental health center often comes in to help fill the gap.

As communities throughout America seem to focus on issues of suburban sprawl and buying new textbooks for schoolchildren, funding for community services such as these can plateau, or worse, be cut. In many states, governments must submit balanced budgets and when there’s a shortfall in revenues, public services are often the first to feel such cuts. Blame poor marketing or misunderstanding of the need, but community mental health is a place that needs more growth year after year, not cuts in spending.

As mental health concerns continue to grow and take center stage as people become more aware of their emotional needs, there is a prime opportunity to help reach more people with treatment services. Your local community mental health center is an obvious place to offer such services, providing greater benefits to the community it serves. Please don’t forget that next time you see a cut in your local government’s budget for such services – let your local representatives know you support more funding for America’s better mental health.