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April is National Minority Health Month

April is National Minority Health Month

Submitted by: Christine Pajarillo, LICSW, VP of Programs and Social Services and Carolyn Reynolds, MS, Associate Director of Behavioral Health Services, Whittier Street Health Center.

 As April is National Minority Health Month (NMHM), a time to raise awareness about health disparities that continue to affect people from racial and ethnic minority groups, it is critical to also address the mental and behavioral health disparities among racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) reports that racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. are more likely to be uninsured, more likely to use emergency departments, less likely to have access to mental health services, less likely to use community mental health services, and more likely to receive lower quality care. Numerous studies exist reporting poor mental health can lead to a wide array of physical and emotional problems that if untreated, can lead to severe medical conditions, including the development of hypertension, diabetes and other chronic diseases. 

 2021 data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) indicate that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) with mental health diagnoses are less likely to receive treatment or counseling compared to white adults. In 2021, 50% of white adults with a mental health diagnosis received treatment or counseling, while Asian adults with a mental health diagnosis only received treatment or counseling at a rate of 23%. Rates for Black and Latinx adults were slightly higher at 33% and 34%. The low treatment rates for BIPOC populations is critical to address, as suicidality is a consequence of untreated mental illness. Minority group are amongst the highest risk populations for suicide attempts, with the suicide death rate among Black youth increasing faster than any other racial or ethnic group. 

 What are the barriers to mental health treatment for BIPOC populations? Although minorities are just as likely as non-minorities to experience mental health disorders, they are far less likely to receive treatment. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, members of the BIPOC community are less likely to receive diagnosis and treatment for their mental illness, have less access to mental health services and often receive a poorer quality of mental health care. In addition to the language barriers many minorities experience in healthcare, BIPOC populations face significant differences in the accessibility of culturally competent mental health providers who can meet them where they are. The risk of engaging in microaggression is higher when treated by a provider who doesn’t understand one’s lived experience as a BIPOC person; additionally, providers without cultural competence training may underestimate the role of racism and discrimination on one’s mental health. There are many additional known barriers for BIPOC that can affect their ability to receive treatment for mental health disorders, including lack of health insurance, legal status and stigma. Unfortunately, stigma and differing cultural perceptions about mental illness in BIPOC populations, often result in shame being associated with seeking mental health treatment. Mental health is often considered a taboo, weakness, or something that will go away on its own.  Given the vast issues that affect minority mental health, it is vital to discuss and address mental health with an approach that acknowledges their diverse experiences.

As we continue to live in a time of racial inequity, social injustice, and the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the time to talk about mental health in BIPOC populations is now. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recently released a Statement on Racism in 2020, emphasizing that the effect of racism and racial trauma on mental health is real.  The following is an excerpt from the statement by NAMI’s CEO Daniel H. Gillison: “The effect of racism and racial trauma on mental health is real and cannot be ignored. The disparity in access to mental health care in communities of color cannot be ignored. The inequality and lack of cultural competency in mental health treatment cannot be ignored. Our nation’s African American community is going through an extremely painful experience, pain that has been inflicted upon this community repeatedly throughout history and is magnified by mass media and repeated deaths. We stand with all the families, friends and communities who have lost loved ones senselessly due to racism. And, with more than 100,000 lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic – disproportionately from minority communities – these recent deaths add gasoline to the fire of injustice. While there is much we need to do to address racism in our country, we must not forget the importance of mental health as we do so. Racism is a public health crisis”.

It is key to remember that mental health is just as important as physical health and should be treated with an equally high priority. If you or someone you know is in crisis now, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to be connected to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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