Minorities and Mental Health: Moving Beyond Stigma

By Dr. Courtney Ferrell Aklin
Chief of Staff, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities

By Dr. Marcia M. Gómez
Health Science Policy Analyst, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities

Dr. Courtney Ferrell Aklin

   Dr. Courtney Ferrell Aklin

Demographic trends in the United States have continued to change rapidly. Projections indicate that within the next 30 years, the majority of the United States will be non-White.1 Among the racial and ethnic groups that will make up the majority, there is significant heterogeneity, making healthcare delivery even more challenging.

Mental illness is one of the most prevalent health problems in the United States and one of the most taxing on the healthcare system. In addition, mental illness carries the highest disease burden among all diseases, with devastating effects on daily functioning; personal, social, and occupational impairment; and premature death if left untreated.2 One in 10 children and one in five adults are affected by mental illness.3

Mental illness does not discriminate. It occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups and is the leading cause of disability in the United States. However, two thirds of individuals with a diagnosable mental health disorder do not seek treatment.4 Most ethnic minorities have similar prevalence rates of mental health issues to those of Whites, but they have less access to mental health services, are less likely to seek and receive needed care, and, when they do receive it, are more likely to get poorer-quality care. This combination of disparities leads to racial and ethnic minorities having a higher proportion of unmet mental healthcare needs compared with majority populations.5

In 1999, health disparities in mental health were highlighted in the Surgeon General’s report on mental health. Dr. David Satcher, former U.S. Surgeon General, called on all Americans to educate themselves and challenge the stigma, attitudes, fear, and misunderstanding that remain barriers to truly addressing mental illness.6 In 2008, in an effort to sustain dialogue on mental health in minority populations, the U.S. House of Representatives established July as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.

Brother, You’re on My Mind, created as a partnership between Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), is an example of an initiative designed to increase awareness about mental health among African American men. The focus of the initiative is on starting a conversation to dispel the myths associated with mental health problems and assert the importance of seeking treatment. Expectations that men be “tough,” coupled with poor access to mental health services, leave men of color who struggle with mental illness especially susceptible to substance abuse, homelessness, incarceration, and homicide.7

Particularly for populations of color, existing stigmas and the lack of discussion on mental health are major barriers to individuals seeking proper treatment. It is important to remember that mental health is fundamental to overall health and well-being at every stage of life.8 NIMHD is committed to envisioning an America in which all populations have an equal opportunity to live long, healthy, and productive lives. Therefore, we must continue to encourage discussion, awareness, and research about mental health.

More research is needed to examine:

  • The best approaches to mental healthcare.
  • The best ways to increase communication between patients and mental healthcare providers.
  • The increased risk of mental illness among people who are poor, homeless, or incarcerated or who have substance abuse issues and how to address them.
  • Cultural aspects relating to mental health and how to integrate resources within communities.

Resources:

Mentalhealth.gov

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

National Alliance on Mental Illness

References:

1. Colby, S. L., & Ortman, J. M. (2015). Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau.

2. Reeves, W. C., Strine, T. W., Pratt, L. A., Thompson, W., Ahluwalia, I., Dhingra, S. S., . . . Safran, M. A. (2011). Mental illness surveillance among adults in the United States. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 60(03), 1–32.

3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Any Disorder Among Children; and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1999). Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health.

4. Mental Health America. (2017). The State of Mental Health in America. Alexandria, VA: Mental Health America.

5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2001). Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity—A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services; and Wahowiak, L. (2015). Addressing stigma, disparities in minority mental health: Access to care among barriers. The Nation’s Health, 45(1), 1–20.

6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1999). Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health.

7. National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. (2017). Brother, You’re on My Mind.

8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2001). Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity—A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services.

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