Racial inequality in mental health care is real — it’s present in the underfunded healthcare institutions in minority communities, in cases of misdiagnosed mental illnesses affecting Black Americans, the lack of culturally responsive care, and paucity of providers equipped to treat Black American. Black people and people of color are less likely to have their mental health problems addressed, mainly as a result of a dysfunctional healthcare system that isn’t fully equipped to serve people of minority race or ethnicity.
Even as Black communities are faced with a disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths in the US, the current spate of anti-Black violence poses a threat not just to lives, but to the mental well-being of every Black American. There’s no gainsaying that far-reaching change is required in the health care and mental health care system in order to truly protect Black lives.
The Scale of Racial Inequality in Mental Health
The extreme disparity in access to quality mental health care between the whites and the BIPOC population in the US, is one too great to ignore. Research has shown that racial and ethnic minorities have significantly less access to mental health services than white people, and are less likely to receive proper care and treatment. The American Psychological Association reported that mental health issues predominantly affect racial and ethnic minorities who are more likely to experience income challenges, which also prevents them from gaining access to quality mental health care.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, Black Americans are more likely to report psychological distress. Studies have also shown that Black people have been found to have significantly higher rates of severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, in comparison to whites. In similar contrast, Black people are also more likely to report severe and disabling cases of depression.
It was also reported recently that depression and anxiety cases among Black Americans had risen since the death of George Floyd and the events occuring in its aftermath. The extent of this issue is a cause for grave concern — the most common conditions that increase risk of suicide are anxiety and depression.
It’s well-established that minority groups — especially Black people — face a greater risk of mental health problems, but it’s also safe to say that the lack of proper mental health care that still pervades these communities is influenced by racial bias.
Contributing Factors to Racial Disparities in Mental Health Care
The racial disparity in mental health care is heightened by a limited access to quality health care that exists in minority communities. This barrier is often caused by lack of insurance coverage, predominantly impacting Black people and people of color. For people with limited resources, taking time off work and paying for appointments or therapy sessions is often seen as a luxury that they cannot afford.
There’s also a lack of qualified providers equipped to properly diagnose, manage and treat mental illnesses among Black people and other minorities. The diversity imbalance in the US mental health care system is one of the major barriers to obtaining quality treatment. For instance, the number of Black therapists in practice is simply not enough to deal with the growing rate of mental illness among Black Americans. Cultural differences that exist between providers and their patients can result in poor communication and consequently, poorer mental health outcomes.
Although the conversation about mental health in Black communities is growing steadily, the issue of stigma still exists, and is a contributing factor to the racial disparity that exists in the mental health care system. There is often perceived to be little need for mental health services among minorities, attributed to a number of factors including: a history of misdiagnosis and discrimination, high costs, lack of treatment options, provider bias, and a preference for community and faith-based options.
In some cases, the people who reach out for professional help shy away from speaking to other people about the benefits of therapy, for fear of being seen as being vulnerable or “weak” — a cardinal sin in a community that has needed to rely on strength for its very survival.
Generally, however, most factors that lead to inequality in mental health care are rooted in racial prejudice. Discrimination from health care providers and mental health institutions earns distrust from minorities and has far-reaching implications for the quality of mental health care that they end up receiving.
Bridging the Gap
Attaining racial equality in mental health care requires a collective effort from the mental health community. Education and awareness is the first step in changing the status quo. Providers should receive extensive training on the cultural differences involved in treating patients across diverse backgrounds — culturally responsive care. Paying attention to the specific needs of minority patients, and making sure that they get the care they need, will help in curbing the disparity in mental health care.
A number of organizations are attempting to spread awareness and eliminate the stigma of mental health amongst racial minorities, but these efforts are unlikely to be fully successful if a diverse workforce is not prioritized in the mental health care system. Encouraging diversity is the best way to build trust between providers and patients.
Increasing access to mental health care and improving the quality of care obtained by minorities can also be enhanced through policy efforts. One effective way to improve access is by integrating mental health care with primary health care services. Healthcare professionals and institutions can contribute in the fight against racial discrimination by supporting laws and policies designed to tackle these issues. In other words, vote as if your mental health depends on it.
By showing their open support for better mental health care, minorities who have suffered racial prejudice will be encouraged to seek positive ways to exercise their right to improved well-being and alleviate some of the mental anguish they have been and continue to be subjected to.