By Amanda Cruz
Navigating complex public health systems and social services can be painfully difficult for those who don’t understand it, and California’s mental health system is no exception. For some people, not knowing what public mental health services are available or which ones they qualify for can prevent them from seeking care. For others, challenges finding mental health providers who speak the same language are a barrier. In many communities, community health workers offer critical relief to this problem.
What is a community health worker?
Community health workers are defined by the American Public Health Association as, frontline public health workers who are trusted members of the community who facilitate access to health/social services.
A community health worker is an umbrella term for many different public health workers that work directly with communities, including:
- Promatores de salud
- Outreach worker/specialist
- Community health advocate, community health representative, community health outreach worker, community health advisor, community health educator, community care coordinator,
- Peer educator, peer support worker, peer health promoter, neighborhood health advisor
- Casework aide, community health aide, public health aide, patient navigator, family support workers
There are many different titles for community health workers and they can be found working in health facilities, government agencies, and nonprofits providing a variety of supportive services. A case manager might provide interpretation and translation services between patients and their providers. An outreach educator might help someone find nearby mental health services A nutrition advisor could help someone follow a diet and exercise plan.
While the types of roles and support services vary, an essential function of many community health workers is increasing engagement between communities and health/social services. They often share the language, ethnicity, and life experiences of those they serve, making them a trusted source of support. This trust and connection are essential to improving the health and social services used by underrepresented and underserved communities.
How many Community Health Workers are in California?
Community health workers are a critical part of the healthcare workforce that connect communities to health and social services, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are only 6,740 community health workers in California, a state with nearly 40 million residents. With millions of Californians facing unmet needs for mental health treatment, this number of community health workers is not enough. California’s behavioral health system faces a critical workforce shortage across many areas, and increasing the number of community health workers is a key piece of the solution.