Bipartisan Legislation to Fund Community Mental Health Programs Introduced in Congress

New legislation introduced in the U.S. House aims to address the nation's critical shortfall in mental health providers by expanding access to behavioral health care services in underserved communities while employing and creating career paths for community members. 

The Community Mental Wellness Worker Training Act, introduced June 11 by Rep. Adriano Espaillat (NY-13) and Rep. Mike Lawler (NY-17), would create a federal grant program to allow certified community behavioral health clinics, mental health centers, hospitals, and other behavioral health organizations to train lay community members to deliver behavioral health screening and interventions. 

“Communities around the nation are facing a mental health tsunami, and our bill will address the national crisis at hand as well as specifically train and support local health care workers who have the cultural competency and context to best serve their neighbors,” said Rep. Espaillat, a longtime advocate for underserved populations in health care and mental health training. 

Need for high-quality, culturally appropriate care

Accessible, culturally appropriate behavioral health care services are urgently needed by a quarter of the U.S. population. “More than one in five Americans struggle with mental illness, nearly one in 10 suffer from depression in any given year, and over 16% have battled substance abuse in the past year,” said Rep. Lawler. “With a rising mental health crisis and addiction epidemic, there has never been a greater need for mental wellness workers. “

Milton Wainberg, MD, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons/New York State Psychiatric Institute and director of the Mental Wellness Equity Center, applauded the measure. “This legislation’s support for lay provider training to provide immediate access to quality mental health care supervised by mental health specialists is a critical step in addressing the urgent challenges we face with mental health and substance use inequities and service access,” said Dr. Wainberg, who directs the Center with co-director Miriam Tepper, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia.

Columbia  University's ENGAGE initiative

In 2022, Drs. Wainberg and Tepper launched ENGAGE, the Columbia Mental Wellness Equity Center’s signature initiative, to train lay community workers to deliver brief interventions for mental illnesses and addictions. 

The initiative—designed to improve access to behavioral health care for ethnic and racial minorities, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, and sexual and gender minorities—received pilot funds from the New York State Office of Mental Health in addition to start-up federal community project funding with the support of Rep. Espaillat.

The Community Mental Wellness Worker Training Act offers the promise of establishing similar programs across the nation. “Our bill will create a framework tailored to remove barriers that have long prevented marginalized communities from seeking mental health services and provide federal grant funding to ensure these services are in place when needed,” Rep. Espaillat said.

Linda Rosenberg, Columbia Psychiatry’s Executive Director for External Relations, said that ENGAGE successfully builds upon research Dr. Wainberg conducted in under-resourced countries. “The Community Mental Wellness Worker Training Act accelerates the research-to-practice journey by creating the financial scaffolding needed to grow and sustain an expanded behavioral health workforce trained in evidence-based interventions.” 


The following organizations have endorsed the Espaillat-Lawler legislation: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Mental Health Counselors Association, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work, American Occupational Therapy Association, Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, Global Alliance for Behavioral Health & Social Justice, Huntington’s Disease Society, International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses, Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, National Council for Mental Wellbeing, National Disability Rights Network, National League for Nursing, Psychotherapy Action Network, The Kennedy Forum, Western Youth Services and Postpartum Support International. 

To view their official letter of support, click here.  

Media Contact

Carla Cantor
Director of Communications, Columbia Psychiatry
347-913-2227 |