You don't have to be a mental health professional to help out people in need.

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There is an overwhelming need for mental health services, and the government agencies, nonprofit organizations, substance-abuse centers and mental health clinics that provide these services are often understaffed and overwhelmed. This is where you come in. Regardless of the nature of your talents, skills or educational background, your willingness to volunteer with mental health patients is all you need to make a difference in countless lives in your community.

The needs are great. One national survey in 2004 found that nearly 6 percent of Americans (about one in 17) had a serious mental health illness that required professional help, while nearly 30 percent -- almost 58 million Americans age 18 or older -- had a diagnosable mental health disorder [source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. About 45 percent of people with mental health issues have more than one mental health issue they're grappling with [source: National Institute of Mental Health]. The majority of disabled people between the ages of 15 and 44 are disabled because of mental health issues, and most of those issues are related to severe depression.

When it comes to kids and mental health disorders, the statistics are just as grim. About 20 percent of children have a diagnosable mental health issue, and it's estimated that about 80 percent of those won't receive the treatment they need [source: Kane].

When a person with a mental health disorder doesn't receive the treatment he or she needs, the results can be catastrophic: More than 32,000 Americans committed suicide in 2004, and more than nine out of 10 of them had a diagnosable mental illness [source: National Institute of Mental Health]. Three times as many people die from suicide in Minnesota as from homicide [source: Mental Health Association of Minnesota]. In 2006, more than 4 million Americans visited emergency rooms for mental health-related issues, and 2.4 million inpatient hospital stays were a result of mental disorders [source: CDC]. The average length of stay was just one week, after which patients were discharged to seek help elsewhere.

You don't have to be a professional to lend a hand (or an ear) to mental health patients. There are many ways you can volunteer with mental health patients, so keep reading to find out how.