A history of making a difference

On Oct. 31, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act into law, which dramatically altered the delivery of mental health services across the country. The law’s passage encouraged a new era of optimism in mental health care. This pivotal legislation led to the establishment of comprehensive community mental health centers.

In its very modest beginnings, the passage of the legislation allowed people with mental illness who had been languishing in psychiatric hospitals and institutions to move back into their communities and receive care there. The advancement of more effective psychotropic medications and new approaches to psychotherapy increasingly made community-based care for people with mental illness a reality. Research-based evidence started to demonstrate that mental illness could be treated more effectively and in a more cost-effective manner in community-based settings than in psychiatric inpatient settings.

In New Hampshire, services provided to people with mental illness have become much more diverse and comprehensive over the past 50 years. Over time, there has been a realization that helping people to function at optimal levels also requires the integration of treatment services for addiction disorders.

This multidisciplinary approach is an example of the highly specialized level of service that New Hampshire community mental health centers are providing today. In fact, the 10 nonprofit organizations delivering this critical care have evolved far beyond the original community mental health centers that were established during the 1960s.

New Hampshire’s mental health and addiction services are funded by multiple sources, including Medicaid, Medicare, county, state and federal grants, private insurance and self-pay fees. Leveraging all of these funding sources is a complex and ongoing effort that must be sustained for the centers to remain viable.

To a great extent, funding levels are also subject to state legislative appropriations. New Hampshire has been investing in the system the past several years to stimulate expanded service options and capacity while trying to minimize the utilization of psychiatric inpatient admissions. State officials and the Legislature are key decision-makers who can quickly affect the strength of the mental health system in New Hampshire and its ability to serve those most in need.

Through the years, New Hampshire’s community mental health centers have been able to manage through tough economic times and funding reductions. Yet they have greatly expanded the original vision laid out in 1963 by creating successful specialized programs to care for people of any age, with a wide range of diagnoses.

While services and skill levels have grown dramatically, the commitment has remained the same. Staff at the centers believe in the value and dignity of all people. They accept those seeking help where they are at, with teams of highly trained, dedicated professionals who provide compassionate treatment and care.

Eric Johnson is CEO of Northern Human Services in Conway.

Categories: Opinion