When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, ensuring one’s physical health became the priority. As the toll of social distancing and prolonged stay-in-place orders have shown, the importance of addressing mental health and well-being is integral to our COVID-19 response for all, but particularly for people of color. Minority communities across the nation have experienced greater rates of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths. As we think about health disparities and racial inequity, we must do better to address minority mental health as well.
During Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s focus on untreated and undertreated mental illness and substance use disorders and their substantial impact on health outcomes. Racial and ethnic minority groups are significantly less likely to have access to and utilize mental health services. In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Black Americans aged 15 to 24; and suicide was the leading cause of death for Asian Americans aged 15 to 24. Suicide attempts for Hispanic girls in grades 9-12 were 40% higher than for non-Hispanic white girls in the same age group in 2017, while receiving mental health treatment half as often as the non-Hispanic white population in 2018.
Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience mental illness in a given year, and Black Americans are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults. Despite this, Black people are less likely than white individuals to seek treatment. There are long-held beliefs related to mental health stigma, which can make people of color hesitant to reach out.
Even when stigma is overcome, the lack of access to care and treatment can be deadly. People diagnosed with a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, have a substantially shorter life expectancy – 15 years lower than average – and rates of psychotic disorders are higher in certain ethnic minority groups. Without access to meaningful care, the results are often shorter lifespans and/or poorer health outcomes.
It is up to each of us to continue our meaningful work deep within our communities, while also working to address the inequalities present in our society. While many AHA member hospitals and health systems offer behavioral health services, we must ask ourselves to each take a step forward to provide improved access to care, in particular for minority communities.
Hospitals and health systems must encourage racially equitable representation of behavioral health care providers within their services while increasing the availability of behavioral health care teams for minority populations. We should train our staff to increase their cultural and linguistic competency.
Let’s make sure all individuals in minority communities can experience positive health outcomes.
Harsh Trivedi, M.D., is president and CEO of Sheppard Pratt Health System based in Baltimore, Md., and a member of the AHA Board of Trustees.