Addressing Mental Health Disparities in Minority Communities

July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, which aims to bring attention to mental health issues in minority communities and the unique challenges each community faces. Individuals of each minority group encounter different stigmas, barriers to access, and other problems when it comes to mental health; it is important to recognize these differences. Doing so is the only way to address these obstacles and start the conversation on mental health.

The prevalence of mental illness among different races is relatively similar, and yet there are large discrepancies in access to and receipt of treatment. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports the following statistics: 16.3% of Hispanic adults, 18.6% of black adults, 13.9% of Asian adults, and 28.3% of American Indian/Alaska Native adults are living with a mental health condition, in comparison with the 19.3% of white adults who do. And, among adults with mental health needs, some minority groups are only half as likely to have seen a health professional in the last year as white adults.

And yet only a portion of those reporting mental illness also report receiving treatment. The percentages of each minority group receiving treatment are consistently lower than the percentage of the white population that does. Why is this?

Barriers to care often occur both inside and outside minority communities. When it comes to health professionals, studies have found people of color are diagnosed — often wrongly — with more serious conditions than white individuals with similar symptoms. Furthermore, people tend to be more comfortable with practitioners from their own cultures or backgrounds; a dearth of minority providers means people seeking services are often unable to find a practitioner with whom they’re comfortable. Mental health professionals who are not versed in the cultural and social experiences of those they are treating are not always able to provide sufficient treatment. For many children and young adults with a mental illness in minority communities, they are often punished in their schools and even imprisoned instead of receiving the treatment they need.

What can be done to address minority mental health disparities? Increased awareness and dialogue are paramount first steps. The stigma and lack of access can only be addressed once they are acknowledged. Mental health professionals must be trained to have the sensitivity and knowledge of challenges unique to each minority group. Community health centers are often an important resource for communities without much other access to treatment. The barriers individuals face may be on a large scale, but they can be tackled with the know-how and support of many.

Stay tuned: throughout the month, we will be posting about specific minority groups and mental health to explore barriers to care and possible solutions to increasing access.