The Struggles Minorities Face When Seeking Help for Mental Health or Addiction, and How Allies Can Help

It’s no secret that seeking help for a mental health condition or addiction is hard. But minority groups face even greater struggles accessing the care they need.

Since 1949, the United States has recognized May as Mental Health Awareness Month. In  2008, the U.S. House of Representatives announced July as Bebe Moore Campbell Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. The goal: to improve overall awareness and access to mental health treatment for minority populations.

What Are the Main Struggles Minorities Face?

One in six Americans has a mental health condition like depression or anxiety. Several risk factors impact mental health. These risk factors appear to impact minority populations disproportionately.

Poverty 

Poverty remains an ongoing problem in the United States. Fourteen percent of white children live in poverty, but this number skyrockets to nearly 40% for Black children and 33% for Latino children.

Poverty affects everything from hunger to shelter to access to education and resources. Long-term poverty is associated with poor health and prolonged stress. These factors can exacerbate mental health symptoms. And in some areas, treatment services of all kinds tend to be scarce—if they exist at all.

Poverty also often makes accessing treatment more complicated. What if the person seeking help doesn’t have transportation? What if they can’t get reliable childcare? How will they pay for treatment if they don’t have insurance?

Racism and Discrimination

Oppression is deeply rooted in the infrastructure of modern society. Inequality affects everything from access to quality doctors to affordable housing.

Racism and discrimination can compromise mental health. Groups that come face to face with inequality often experience tremendous stress just living everyday life. This stress can undoubtedly worsen depression or anxiety.

Treatment Biases

Research shows that mental health inequities exist in professional treatment settings. First, most research focuses on white participants. This means health professionals may overlook serious symptoms in minority populations.

Racial misdiagnoses can also inadvertently impact the kinds of options people have for mental health treatment. For example, research shows that Black people are over-diagnosed with schizophrenia. This phenomenon occurs because professionals sometimes perceive cultural mistrust as a psychotic symptom. 

Misdiagnosing causes complications. It can lead to people not getting the correct prescriptions for medications. Health professionals may turn away people who desperately need help.

Underdiagnosis also exists. Black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimia symptoms. Yet doctors tend to screen their minority patients less thoroughly for eating-disorder symptoms, so they may not get the help they need.

We know that mental health conditions often progress if untreated. Inadequate screening can result in devastating consequences.

How Can Allies Provide Support?

Choosing not to be racist is one thing. Being a true ally requires you to understand how racism works in the first place. Allies can offer ongoing awareness about systemic racism, and they can engage in calls to action to initiate change.

Educate Yourself

It’s not enough to say you’re not racist. Many people carry feelings of bias against certain groups of people; they just don’t realize it.

Instead, aim to learn about your own privilege. What benefits do you have that others don’t? Learn about the existing systems of oppression. While sometimes insidious, it exists everywhere. Pay attention to it, so you can use your privilege to initiate and create change.

Numerous books, articles, and documentaries can help you educate yourself. Follow influencers on social media who aren’t like you or who don’t fall into the groups you do. Don’t depend on others to give you the information. As an ally, you can take the responsibility to devote time and effort to learning about the experiences of others.

Listen More

Listening is essential for understanding. Listen to voices of color. Listen to your minority friends. Most of all, listen without thinking about what you want to say next.

Active listening requires mindfulness. Instead of focusing on giving advice or proving how tolerant you are, give the speaker your full attention. Just listen.

As you listen, remain open-minded and curious. If you don’t understand something, ask for a simple clarification. Don’t assume you know how someone feels.

Advocate for Change

Racism exists everywhere. Call it out when you see it. At times, this may feel uncomfortable. Instead of running away from it, lean into the discomfort. It signifies the need for change and reform.

Change can also happen at a societal level. Encourage local mental health organizations to include minority staff. Write to the government, urging increased mental health services, especially in underserved areas.

Most importantly, continue amplifying the voices of people of color. As an ally, you can be a powerful spokesperson.

It’s great that we’re having more conversations about mental health awareness in general, but minorities continue to face enormous difficulties in accessing appropriate care. July’s Minority Mental Health Month seeks to challenge this stigma.

Change starts with you! We all have an individual responsibility to make our communities, states, and our world feel more inclusive. Educate yourself, ask questions, have the willingness to learn, and, above all, keep advocating for change.

References

Jenna Richer

Executive Director - Colorado
Jenna, MSW, LCSW, has worked extensively with individuals experiencing homelessness, severe and persistent mental illness, & co-occurring substance use disorders. She oversaw several intensive, field-based programs providing services to these individuals through the LA County Dept. of Mental Health & Veterans Administration. Jenna worked with the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health to secure SAMHSA grants for mental health & housing services providers. Prior to her current role, Jenna served as the Division Director for Housing and Homelessness programs through Family Tree, working with local officials, leaders, housing developers, & grants on “Housing First” programming with mental health services for people experiencing homelessness, addiction, & mental illness.

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