My daughter Jessye, who's graduating from college, tells me she wants to go to work in community mental health. She's excited by many aspects of the field, particularly case management with women and children. As a 25-year veteran of the struggles of community mental health, I listen to my daughter and think unworthy thoughts on the order of "Get an MBA!" At the same time, I admire my daughter's sense of purpose, and I instinctively understand her passion.
Jessye will make her own career choice, of course, but her selection process is prompting me to reflect on mine. After a quarter-century in the field, would I still recommend community mental health as a career? Part of me believes that no reasonable person would choose this work, especially not now. Beset by chronic budgetary constraints, invasive regulations, heavy caseloads, frequent crises, and insufficient respect from society at large, community mental health today seems like a Sisyphean career choice. At the very least, it qualifies as what Michael White called a "problem-saturated narrative."
It didn't start out that way. Officially launched in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy signed into law the Community Mental Health Act, the CMH movement was born of equal parts idealism, political will, and commonsense thinking. The plan was to build 2,000 mental health centers throughout the country, most located in low-income communities. Each center would offer a…