In May of 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives established the month of July as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the goal of the resolution is to:
- Improve access to mental health treatment and services and promote public awareness of mental illness.
- To enhance public awareness of mental illness and mental illness among minorities.
The month is recognized throughout the country by individuals and groups alike, with internal and external awareness activities taking place such as educational seminars, social media campaigns, thought leader events and one-on-one conversations about the stigma of mental health challenges for minority communities dealing with mental health issues.
Minority Mental Health in America
Although there have been strides to make healthcare accessible for all Americans, inequities still exist, especially for minority communities. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), “Minority groups in the U.S. are less likely to have access to mental health services, less likely to use community mental health services, more likely to use emergency departments, and more likely to receive lower quality care. Poor mental health care access and quality of care contribute to poor mental health outcomes, including suicide, among racial and ethnic minority populations.”
Unfortunately, publicly confronting one’s mental health challenges continues to carry a stigma in American culture. With a lack of access to qualified care and oftentimes insufficient community support, minority populations can face additional challenges in recognizing and addressing their mental health.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Cultural meanings of illness have real consequences in terms of whether people are motivated to seek treatment, how they cope with their symptoms, how supportive their families and communities are, where they seek help (mental health specialist, primary care provider, clergy, and/or traditional healer), the pathways they take to get services, and how well they fare in treatment.”
Another piece of the cultural puzzle is called, “social determinants of health.” These elements—most outside of a person’s control—can affect the social inequity for entire communities. Determinants such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, family dynamics, location of residence, education level and a number of other elements factor into a systematic formula that can unfortunately determine the point from which a person starts their mental health journey and the kind of care they will likely receive.
These Internal and external influences compound the challenge of seeking and receiving treatment and ultimately improving one’s mental health. And with the recent stay-at-home orders and widespread social distancing measures due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are experiencing increased symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, further exacerbating any preexisting barriers to care.
Recent statistics highlight the need to address a solution now more than ever. According to the American Psychiatric Association:
- Ethnic/racial minorities often bear a disproportionately high burden of disability resulting from mental disorders.
- People who identify as being two or more races (24.9%) are most likely to report any mental illness within the past year than any other race/ethnic group, followed by American Indian/Alaska Natives (22.7%), white (19%), and black (16.8%).
- American Indians/Alaskan Natives report higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder and alcohol dependence than any other ethnic racial group.
- Lack of cultural understanding by health care providers may contribute to underdiagnosis and/or misdiagnosis of mental illness in people from racially/ethnically diverse populations.
Additional factors affecting access to treatment by members of diverse ethnic/racial groups may include:
- Lack of insurance, underinsurance
- Mental illness stigma, often greater among minority populations
- Lack of diversity among mental health care providers
- Lack of culturally competent providers
- Language barriers
- Distrust in the health care system
- Inadequate support for mental health service in safety net settings (uninsured, Medicaid, Health Insurance Coverage other vulnerable patients)
Educating yourself is the first step to making a change. There are a number of valuable resources available to learn more about minority mental health and how you can destigmatize mental health in your community. Oftentimes, breaking down barriers starts with sharing your personal story.
Healthcare professionals can also focus on becoming more culturally competent by continuing their education. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health offers a variety of online courses to increase awareness and learn tools to enhance communication with patients, help understanding potential barriers patients face when seeking care and overcoming stereotypes to be able to provide empathetic diagnosis and treatment plans for minorities.
Take actionable steps to get involved in Minority Mental Health Awareness today, by:
- Spreading awareness
- Share your story, participate in a social media campaign or volunteer your time to a local community organization
- Lending your support
- Listen and learn from those in your community, join a charity walk, and raise funds for a charitable organization
- Calling for action
- Connect with organizations such as SAMSA, who are committed to behavioral health equity policies
- Reach out to your local, state and federal officials to voice support for legislation that includes equal access to mental healthcare for all.
With one in five Americans experiencing a mental health challenge in their lifetime, mental health is something that cannot be ignored. Minority Mental Health Awareness Month provides an opportunity to make an impact by working to highlight the importance of ending the stigma around mental health for minorities, and ultimately, achieving equal healthcare access for all.
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