July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to call special focus to the unique challenges and circumstances that racial and ethnic minority groups face when seeking mental health support from peer, community, medical, and institutional sources in the United States.
Of course, no person, group, or community is the same; all face distinct adversities and have specific strengths that can be pulled from when forging solutions to shared problems. However, consistent among racial and ethnic minority groups are strong disparities in mental health outcomes relative to their white peers – disparities which stand at odds with the field’s aspirational values of diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism.
These present disparities have long and tangled historic roots that must be unearthed if we are to understand our present reality. From its beginnings, the field of psychology was often actively weaponized against populations that were labeled nonwhite: Prominent scholars and institutions collected and manipulated pseudoscientific “data” to endorse and legitimize eugenics, to advance the tenets of white supremacy, and to extol the benevolence of slave masters while pathologizing slaves’ perceived laziness (a “condition” labeled dysaethesia aethiopica) or desire to escape human captivity (a fictitious “illness” called drapetomania).
Even today, a vast body of seminal mental health research relies on data and observations that often disproportionately (or even entirely) focus on young, White men. This data is then generalized to the population as a whole, intrinsically establishing Whiteness and maleness as the norm and pathologizing or marginalizing those who did not fit such narrow and arbitrary definitions of health.
This issue is endemic but not confined to a lack of diversity in research subjects. In 2015, despite just 62% of the overall United States population identifying as white, 81% of psychology workers in academia were white, 86% of research psychologists in the workforce were white, and 88% of mental health service providers were white. Perhaps unsurprisingly, comparatively, racial and ethnic minority groups are less likely to seek out, have access to, or actually receive mental health services, while they are more likely to receive poor quality of care and to terminate services prematurely.
The reasons for these disparities are many, complex, and systemic, reflecting larger inequities in education, economics, criminal justice, institutional structures, and more. These data begin to reveal the extent to which minority groups have been either actively excluded from conversations surrounding mental health or have been dismissed and dehumanized when included at all.
As a discipline, mental health must reckon with these past and present shortcomings if it is to continue developing as a valid field of study and practice. This requires conscious and continuous action at all levels – from researchers and subjects to educators and practitioners – to identify and correct existing disparities. Recent years have seen positive shifts in representation among academia and the workforce; ethical guidelines continue to evolve with the goal of celebrating multiculturalism; and many organizations are showing concerted efforts to elevate marginalized voices; yet there remains much work to be done to create an equitable world where all those who need mental health help have sufficient access to it.
Among BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) communities, one of the biggest barriers to receiving adequate mental health support from institutional and organizational settings is inaccessibility. Barriers to access can include: lack of insurance, the famously high out-of-pocket costs of mental health services, transportation or location barriers (particularly in rural and underfunded communities), communication barriers, differences in cultural norms and values, historically justified fear and suspicion of treatment, and outright racism and discrimination within the mental health workforce. The COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced many of these barriers, making Mindful Health Solutions’ gap-bridging services like telepsychiatry, insurance advocacy, financial assistance, public education sessions, and integrative care more important than ever.
In informal settings (families, peer groups, and social networks), one of the most prevalent barriers to mental health support is stigma. Given the historic and ongoing lack of inclusive research, funding, education, access, and representation of these groups within mental health, it is easy to understand why stigma and knowledge gaps often linger in minority communities. In seeking services, individuals with mental health conditions in these communities may face judgment, rejection, and even fear from peers and family who have not had access to relevant and culturally competent mental health education. The process can be isolating and discouraging, and the consequences of seeking help may dissuade people from reaching out at all.
Half of the antidote to stigma is accessible and judgment-free information; this is why providing education about mental health is one of Mindful Health Solutions’ three primary objectives (alongside conducting research and offering treatment). The other half of the antidote is compassion and humanization, which are central in Mindful Health Solutions’ individualized, patient-centered approach to providing care. Mindful Health Solutions’ work to meet patients where they are (by providing telepsychiatry, for instance), to identify and utilize existing supports, to establish a collaborative relationship with the patient in developing treatment goals and plans, and to advocate for patients with insurance companies.
We believe that patients should be recognized as human and not treated as collections of symptoms, that diversity means not merely tolerating but celebrating and supporting the things that make each of us unique, and that everyone deserves the access to mental health support.
To explore more about our philosophy, services, and additional resources, visit the linked pages on our website. Click here for specific information and tools related to National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, courtesy of the Office of Minority Health.
If our services seem like they could be a good fit for you, click here to register as a patient and set up your first appointment with our staff.