Scaling Up Mental Health Services in Northern Manhattan

Project Engage trains lay community workers to deliver brief, evidence-based interventions for mental illnesses and addictions

October 12, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic caused higher rates of mental disorders that have worsened gaps in behavioral health services for vulnerable communities served by Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

In response, the Mental Wellness Equity Center, led by Milton Wainberg, MD, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, introduced Project Engage, an initiative that aims to address workforce shortages and increase access to timely, effective, and culturally relevant mental health care. 

Dr. Wainberg and colleagues at the first workforce training in October.

In early October, Project Engage kicked off its first, weeklong training of Mental Wellness Community Workers, lay members of the community who are trained and supervised in screening and delivering brief, evidence-based interventions for mental illnesses and addictions. The new cadre of workers are employed by ACDP (Community Association of Progressive Dominicans) and S:US (Services for the Underserved) and will continue to be trained and supervised over the next nine months.

Improving access and quality of care while creating career paths for community members

Project Engage, directed by Dr. Wainberg with co-director Miriam Tepper, MD, a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, is focused on improving access and quality of care for racial minorities, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, and sexual and gender minorities—and employing and creating career paths for community members.

Designed by Dr. Wainberg and his team based on their promising National Institute of Mental Health-funded research in low- and middle-income countries, the model is being introduced in New York City with a primary focus on Washington Heights. 

The initiative received start up federal community project funding with the support of Congressman Adriano Espaillat as well as pilot funds from the New York State Office of Mental Health.  

Dr. Tepper said that in the context of burgeoning demand for behavioral health services and limited uptake of effective evidence-based interventions, state and federal policymakers are looking for innovative solutions to help close the gap.

“We are thrilled to be moving forward with the initial training for this new workforce, and hope that this pilot will lay the groundwork for expansion in other communities so that individuals in need of behavioral health services can access much-needed care,” Dr. Tepper said.