Addressing mental health disparities

[4 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • Certain factors, such as race, gender and identity, can make seeking mental health care more difficult.

  • Mental illnesses can affect minority groups at a disproportionate rate.

  • Achieving mental health equity leads to stronger relationships, stronger communities and, ultimately, a stronger world.

Addressing mental health disparities

Mental health may not discriminate based on race, gender or identity, but these factors can make accessing mental health treatment more difficult.

People from racial and ethnic minority groups, for example, often face obstacles when trying to find care for mental illness — obstacles like language barriers, discrimination and a lack of diversity among mental health care providers.

The unique struggles facing these communities are challenging, but raising awareness can help overcome inequities. By educating ourselves on the facts and taking steps to address disparities, together we can not only help improve mental health outcomes, but also rewrite the narrative around minority mental health.

How mental health illnesses affect minority groups

Our mental health refers to our emotional, psychological and social well-being. It encompasses how we think, feel, relate to others and make decisions, and is as important to our overall well-being as our physical health.

But mental health can be affected by certain stressors, such as poverty, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or, of course, a pandemic like COVID-19. Similarly, these stressors can make an existing mental illness worse.

Mental illness is common in the United States, with 1 in 5 Americans living with a diagnosed condition. Among minority groups, it can be even more common. Compared to other demographic groups, for instance, the population of U.S. adults who identify as two or more races has the highest prevalence of mental health conditions. Also, compared to other demographic groups in the United States:

  • Minority groups often have more disabilities resulting from mental disorders
  • Depression is likely to be more persistent in Black and Hispanic people
  • Native Americans and Alaska Natives have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorder

In addition, people who identify as LGBTQ+ are twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to report a mental health illness.

Factors that can impact health disparities

Still, mental health illnesses can usually be treated. The issue is often getting care.

Studies have shown that racial and ethnic minority groups are more likely to lack access to quality health care services, including the diagnosis and treatment of mental health illnesses. Research has also found that communities with higher rates of language barriers are less likely to use mental health services.

A cultural stigma around mental health also exists within certain minority groups. For example, among racial groups in the United States, Asian Americans are the least likely to seek mental health services, according to Mental Health America. One of the primary reasons is because some people are afraid of self-identifying as a person with a disability.

Other factors that can affect minority groups’ access to care include:

  • Distrust in the public health care system
  • Employment status and/or financial strain
  • Lack of cultural competence in providers
  • Lack of diversity among providers
  • Lack of insurance coverage or underinsurance
  • Proximity to services
  • Unstable housing

Achieving mental health care equity

While health care disparities persist, everyone benefits from equal access. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in fact, defines one of its goals as achieving mental health equity, which is “the state in which everyone has a fair and just opportunity to reach their highest level of mental health and emotional well-being.”

Mental health equity leads to stronger relationships, stronger communities and, ultimately, a stronger world. We can all do our part — through advocacy, outreach and action — to reach mental health equity.

As individuals, we can:

  • Learn about ethnic disparities, as well as implicit bias (the unintentional but automatic bias we may experience that can impact how we view and treat others) and other forms of discrimination that can prevent certain people from seeking appropriate care
  • Learn about mental health and the challenges some underserved groups face to get care
  • Share information about mental health, including healthy coping skills and resources, with family, friends and community members

As communities, we can:

  • Address social determinants of health, such as housing and food insecurity
  • Engage in training to reduce unconscious bias (called bias reduction training) and health literacy education
  • Increase crisis and community-based services
  • Increase culturally appropriate services, including hiring linguistic and cultural interpreters as needed

Minority mental health resources

Luckily, there are a multitude of organizations dedicated to helping people struggling with mental illness — and many resources available that are specific to underserved diverse populations.

For example:

From the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

From the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

From The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ+ youth):

  • Reach a crisis counselor 24/7, 365 days a year, from anywhere in the United States:
    Call 1-866-488-7386
    Text 678-678
    Chat thetrevorproject.org/webchat

Health disparity fact sheets from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health:

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Find a doctor

If you are looking for a provider to treat your mental health needs, you can search for one who’s right for you in our provider directory. You can also watch our Minority Mental Health live event or check out The Defensive Line. And you can learn more about our program designed to help improve teen mental health, Work2BeWell.

Download the Providence App

We’re with you, wherever you are. Make Providence’s app your personalized connection to your health. Schedule appointments, conduct virtual visits, message your doctor, view your health records and more. Learn more and download the app.

Related resources

Ways to prioritize your mental health this awareness month

The importance of sleep and its connection to mental health

Don’t be afraid to seek mental health care

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Providence Mental Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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