Carmen Bowers -- once happily married and content in her Capitol Hill job -- stood on the subway platform at Farragut West and fought off the desire to throw herself in front of the next train.

Now, a year and a half later, Bowers says her life began to fall apart after she suffered a back injury three years ago and became permanently disabled.

The disability forced her to leave her job and eventually broke up her marriage, in part, she says, because her husband could not deal with the fact that he would have to help care for a disabled person for years to come. After leaving her husband's Fairfax County house, she had difficulty finding an apartment she could afford on her disability payments.

"I was really confused about where I was heading and what I could do," said Bowers, now 40.

Staring at the subway tracks that day in the summer of 1986, she decided to seek help, finding a friend and psychiatrist who told her to take a cab to the Mount Vernon community mental health center in Fairfax County. Though it has been a difficult time for Bowers, officials at the center say her condition has improved and consider her one of the success stories of community treatment programs.

Mental health services, once considered the province of the state, are now primarily the responsibility of local communities. Neighborhood health centers provide evaluations, daily group support programs, help in finding housing or a job, and admission to a hospital if needed.

Though mental health advocates and families argue that adequate funding for community-based care has never materialized, Virginia has established 40 community service boards that coordinate mental health, mental retardation and substance abuse services for their jurisdictions. In this area, there is one board each for Fairfax-Falls Church, Arlington, Alexandria, Loudoun and Prince William.

State officials estimate that about 65,000 Virginians a year are served through the 40 boards, funded jointly by the state and local governments, but that many of these don't receive the services they need. More than 6,800 people in the state are on board waiting lists for different mental health services, while others need help but are not on any waiting list, state officials say.

A 1986 staff report of Virginia's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) identified significant flaws in community mental health services, including lack of day programs in some communities, large caseloads for community service board staff, and delayed and insufficient follow-through with former patients of state mental institutions.

Case managers had anywhere from three to 215 clients each, with a state median of 49 clients per manager. That ratio allowed less than two hours a month of case management for each chronically ill client, the report said.

In response to shortcomings in the community services system, the state's Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services has requested a massive increase in Gov. Gerald L. Baliles' upcoming biennial budget, to be proposed Jan. 13. The goal of an additional $140 million for various community services in the next two fiscal years would nearly double the current funding level. Of that amount, $52 million would be designated for mental health.

The services at community centers may be as simple as having a client regularly visit a community health center for prescribed medicine. Some clients, such as Bowers, go to the health center five days a week for therapy and other programs.

When Bowers first came to the center, torn by suicidal impulses, the staff found her a bed in the psychiatric ward at Mount Vernon Hospital. When she recently became "scared and irrational" again, she said, Bowers called her case manager at the center and returned to the hospital for two weeks.

In the meantime, the staff had helped her find an efficiency apartment, where she lives with her 17-year-old daughter. With her disability payments plus some help from her husband and parents, she says she can just barely afford her $468-a-month rent. Before that, she shuttled between friends' homes and an emergency shelter for women. She also made a brief attempt to live with a roommate.

For some people who come to the centers, the key to their independence is the ability to hold down a job despite continuing emotional problems. Some communities sponsor small "enclave" programs in which people with mental illnesses work together with supervision. Arlington County began an enclave program this year, with eight chronically mentally ill people running a copying center at the Army-Navy Command Center.

One regional program for Northern Virginians, Project Transition based in Fairfax County, helps mentally disabled clients find regular jobs and sends counselors with the client for the first few weeks of work. The jobs may be with local or federal government, fast-food restaurants, nursing homes or child care centers, according to program staff. Counselors first meet with personnel officers to explain the program and the nature of their client's mental illness.

Originally for the mentally retarded, the program has placed 23 mentally ill people in jobs in the past two years. Many of the clients could get jobs for themselves but would have a problem keeping them, ironically often having more difficulties the better they performed the job, said Linda G. Strange, the program director.

"Their whole identification is with failure," Strange said. "They have to build up a tolerance for success."

Diane Blakeman, a 30-year-old Arlington native, became a GS 4 file clerk at the Navy Annex in Arlington five months ago, the second job she found through Project Transition.

The first was processing Treasury bonds at the U.S. Treasury Department, where she was among a group that got laid off.

Blakeman, who lives with her husband in Parkfairfax, has battled bouts of severe depression and anxiety for a number of years, and five years ago had to be hospitalized for depression.

Her anxiety level and lack of confidence led her to quit jobs working in a cafeteria and at an animal test laboratory after only a few weeks because she was afraid she could not handle them.

"Generally, {the counselors taught me} to stay with a job, even though something might be going wrong," Blakeman said recently.

Counselors helped her with such basic things as organizing her desk and writing down, step by step, what she needs to do to get the job done.

"I'm still somewhat nervous," she said, "{but} I feel like I've jumped over a hill or two."

Next: The battle for funding.