An epidemic of untreated mental illness is ravaging American communities today, fueled by worsening risk factors like loneliness, isolation, addiction, and screen dependence. At one end of the problem is a persistent nationwide shortage of trained mental health professionals. At the other is the reluctance of patients — especially patients from underserved communities — to seek help at all, a factor research suggests may be an even larger contributor to our gaping access gap. As a result, every week, Americans read of new studies and official warnings from leading institutions like the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics signaling a terrifying storm gathering over our national wellness and an unprecedented crisis in youth mental health.
But even under the darkening clouds, rays of hope are breaking through. Long-term investments in mental health infrastructure — from both public and private sectors — are on the rise. Across the country, the clinical workforce is being boosted by innovative payback programs. Systemic barriers to insurance coverage are falling. Care is being integrated into trusted community entry points like schools, workplaces, law enforcement, and safety-net programs.
There is also promise for the nearer term if we know where to look for it. One of those places is in local communities where bonds run deep, and individuals share beliefs and culture. Trained mental health workers — drawn from their own communities — inspire trust, a skill that cannot be taught. Through the power of community, disenfranchised people can find their way through the confusing, broken mental health care system with the aid of a trusted guide.
Two facts suggest that trained helpers could make a difference that is both quick and profound. First, the barriers to market entry that trained mental health workers face are relatively low, so patient uptake could be swift and considerable. Second, research has found that trained mental health workers with the right mix of personal qualities and familiar backgrounds can offer patients significant improvement across a range of settings.
The policy community has already taken note. In 2020, RAND issued a report for the Department of Health and Human Services, addressing the need for a sustained pipeline of such workers.
While America struggles to close the care-access gap, philanthropists have a chance to make an impact on mental health now by investing in trained mental health workers. Their investments now can also shape a better system for the future.
Download our concept note for more guidance for philanthropists on how to leverage this opportunity.