What is a Mental Health System?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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A mental health system can be defined in numerous ways, and while these definitions differ, they are all related to the treatment of mental illness and/or drug addiction. There are a plethora of systems that may gather different types of services available in one area to treat varying aspects of mental illness, and these might be publicly or privately administered, with different relationships to each other. Alternately, a specific approach to mental treatment, grounded in specific psychological or psychiatric theory, could be described as a mental health system.

Perhaps the easiest way to define the term is in how it relates to government systems that address mental illness. Such systems are a collection of services that a government or region offers to address mental illness of varying severity in a defined region. These services may be only available to those who qualify by income or they could be freely available in governments with national health programs.

Types of services offered usually include outpatient management of mental illness with psychotherapists and psychiatric medical management or drug therapy. For more serious illness, a system might have daytime care facilities and inpatient hospitalization. Other services that might be included in a public mental health system are community outreach programs, emergency psychiatric assessment, and inpatient or outpatient treatment for substance abuse.


The private sector may represent a mental health system of a similar type, but it may not be as connected as those services that make up a public system. People accessing private clinicians, services or hospitals may need to search more to find what they need, but they may have the benefit of more choices for care. The latter really depends on ability to pay and types of insurance coverage.

In either case, societies are served best when there is adequate access to all traditional parts of a mental health system. Having good psychiatrists and psychotherapists doesn’t make up for inadequate hospitalization facilities. Such an inequity can lead to significant problems, including having to use other, less appropriate resources like the penal system to compensate for lack of appropriate treatments for the extremely mentally ill. Conversely, failure to provide strong outpatient care leads to relapse and overdependence on the most expensive and strict care options like inpatient hospitalization. The best systems also account for the varying needs of a population that is diversified by age; pediatric and adult treatment are not the same and generally don’t mix well.

The other definition of mental health system is less frequently used and references theories that may underlie types of treatment. This most often applies to psychiatrists or psychotherapists who identify with a particular set of theories, and not all do. Many take an eclectic approach to treatment, combining numerous theories on what works best for patients. Some clinicians offer a more systematic approach, but even those embracing a particular way of treatment recognize the many studies that show the most effective care occurs when client/clinician alliance is strong.



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