Providing Access to Behavioral Health Services in Diverse Communities

By Erynne Jones
Senior Policy Consultant

Often, the challenge in increasing access to mental health services in diverse communities can be as much about cultural competency and reducing stigma as it is about having available clinicians and facilities.  Cultural competency can be a big deal in these communities, helping make consumers feel comfortable accessing the behavioral health care they need.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), minority communities are “less likely to have access to mental health services, less likely to use community mental health services, more likely to use inpatient hospitalization and emergency rooms, and more likely to receive lower quality care.”  A report in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved showed that the social determinants of health can create barriers to accessing mental health care. Creating solutions to addressing these barriers requires innovative approaches that engages the entire community.

In March, Harbage Consulting staff attended California’s Cultural Competence Summit XX, a two-day mental health care conference focused on promoting local, community-defined practices and programs to address mental health and substance use disorders for California’s diverse and underserved populations.

The theme of the conference was clear — sustainable sources of behavioral health funding are needed. However, in addition to funding streams, strategies for effectively reaching these populations require strong partnerships with the local community and the ability to actively listen to the needs of individuals.

There are many of these types of local community partnerships underway, that can serve as models:

  • La Clinica de La Raza partners with its county behavioral health care department on a
    prevention and early intervention program designed to promote mental health services within the Latino community;
  • The Sonoma County Indian Health Project, Inc. and the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians partner to run the Aunties and Uncles Project which focuses on suicide prevention and reducing mental health stigma using culturally based interventions defined by the community; and
  • The Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco provides outreach for homeless seniors to reduce isolation and encourage social connections using diverse and culturally sensitive peer outreach to connect with clients.


The majority of the programs highlighted in the conference were funded in part by the California Mental Health Services Act (MHSA). Passed in 2004, MHSA imposes a 1% tax on Californians with incomes over $1 million and provides counties with the ability to tailor mental health programs to meet the needs of their communities.

Cultural competency is an evolving concept. Keeping an open mind to different ways of approaching solutions, working in partnership with communities, and creating strategies that are flexible enough to be tailored to a variety of individuals are critical to implementing effective programs.