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Minority mental health concerns sometimes ignored, misunderstood, therapists say

Minority mental health concerns sometimes ignored, misunderstood, therapists say
Sometimes, when a young person of color is perceived as reserved or irritable, they can be seen as having an attitude or being aggressive.

In fact, they may be feeling depressed.

If no one asks the person if they are OK, and if the person doesn’t recognize their own depression, they may delay in getting the help they need or may never seek assistance. That hurts them and those around them.

Whether or not they are a person of color, here’s what should happen instead:
  • If you know the person, tell them you’ve noticed that they are quieter than usual or are struggling. Tell them that you notice and can help.
  • If you don’t know the person but you are around them, greet them. This lets them know they are not alone.
“Ideally, what you want to do is what you would do with anyone else,” James Warren, LCSW, a Carle Health Department of Psychiatry and Psychology mental health counselor who provides mental health counseling to University of Illinois student-athletes, said. “Look at the person as an individual, look at them with compassion and do what you can to support the person or get them support.”

This example is one reason why we recognize National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month each July. The month is necessary because mental illness symptoms sometimes are misunderstood or ignored among people of color, Warren said.

Maricor Montano, BSN, RN, and Jody Poultney, LCSW, agreed.

“As a mental health worker and a nurse, I appreciate that this (observance) was created because, not only does it allow workers to be more aware, but it increases awareness in the community,” Montano, nurse case manager and Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) lead at Trillium Place, said. Trillium Place, an affiliate of Carle Health, provides mental health and addiction services in Peoria, East Peoria, Pekin, Lincoln and Eureka.

“What they (racial and ethnic minorities) face in the community is real,” Montano said. “Awareness is real so they can be a voice for others.”

Poultney, a therapist with Carle Physician Group Behavioral Health Bloomington, said National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month is “important and necessary because minorities face the same things we all face, like depression and anxiety, but they have less accessibility to mental health treatment. In addition, there are fewer minority providers, so they may not be able to find someone who has had the same experiences and can provide therapy.”

“We need to recognize our biases,” Warren said.

“We should consider how we can connect the person to someone who can help them,” he said. “Sometimes, a listening ear may be just enough.” Other times, we may need to refer the person for professional help.

National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month helps bring awareness to the unique struggles that racial and ethnic minority communities face regarding mental illness in the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), racial and ethnic minorities often suffer from poor mental health outcomes because of several factors, including lack of access to quality mental health services, discrimination, and cultural stigma and lack of awareness surrounding mental health treatment.

According to HHS, during 2021, 39% of Black American adults, 25% of Asian American adults and 36% of Hispanic adults with mental illness found treatment, compared to 52% of non-Hispanic white Americans.

According to the Veterans Health Administration Department of Veterans Affairs, American Indian and Alaska Native veterans report experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder at double the rate of non-Hispanic white veterans – 20.5% compared to 11.6%.

Napoleon Knight, MD, MBA, executive vice president, chief medical officer, Carle Health, said “Mental health is critical for everyone, and racial and ethnic minorities, historically, have not received the same level of mental health care as white Americans because of discrimination, as well as conscious and unconscious biases. Carle Health is committed to addressing health disparities in this population, which will aid them, their loved ones and the communities in which they live. We encourage all people to seek help when needed, we ask our team members to carefully listen when someone needs to be heard and we expect our providers to treat all patients with the same care and compassion. Remember that we are better together.”

Every human being struggles from time to time with stress, depression and anxiety, Warren said. But sometimes, when people of color feel depression, some people assume they are being lazy or have an attitude, Warren said.

In some communities of color, mental illness is seen as a sign of weakness, which means some people may not seek the professional help they need. So they and their loved ones continue to suffer. In the white population, it’s more acceptable for people to take care of their health and to seek help when needed, Montano said.

“Certain cultures have a fear of seeking help,” Montano said. “You have the stigma that goes with mental health. They fear that they will appear weak. So they don’t seek professional help.”

People may start with their primary care provider, who will do an assessment and may provide a referral to a behavioral health therapist.

Therapists educate patients about their diagnosis, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

“They are scared so it’s important for them to know they are not alone,” Warren said. “I let them know about resources in the community that can help.”

“I would encourage people to seek help early so they can get the help they need and begin to develop their support strategies,” Montano said.

Some people think spirituality can improve mental illness. Spiritual support helps, as does support from trusted family members and friends. And some people also need therapy from a mental health professional.

When people seek help, they may find limited access to mental health professionals. There is a shortage of mental health practitioners but even more in communities of color and in low-income areas. Services may be available in other neighborhoods but, for some people, transportation and child care is a barrier, Poultney said.

People who don’t have insurance may have options through Public Aid.

People who don’t speak English have another barrier unless their mental health provider speaks the same language. They must rely on a translation service or a family member who can translate.

“A lot of people of color I see in therapy have to take the bus to get to services and arrange for child care,” Poultney said. “Some may have to take off work and, if their jobs are hourly, they don’t get paid.”

Because Poultney is white, she can’t always understand the patient experiences. “I will say ‘I’ve never been in that situation; tell me more, so I can understand,’” she said.

In addition to listening to her patients, Poultney takes continuing education classes to understand how to provide better treatment to minority populations. She researches human services agencies and groups where patients can get support. She tries to have relationships with a variety of people.

If a patient is more comfortable seeing a therapist of color, Poultney will make that referral.

People in need may start with their primary care physician. They may make a referral to a mental health professional. For more information on Carle behavioral health, click here.

But others can help. Family members can offer a listening ear.

Clinicians can help by making sure they talk with patients about their mental health, just as they take their high blood pressure and pulse and as they encourage healthy eating and exercise, Warren said.

“We have to have those conversations with everybody,” Warren said.

Patients worried about insurance coverage should check with their health insurance provider first.

“The individual needs to start by acknowledging that mental health is real,” Warren said. “Consider who in your network can support you. And, if you need additional help, get a referral to a mental health professional.”

“Reach out for help,” Poultney said. “You will find out there are options you didn’t realize you had. If you don’t ask, nothing will change.”

“We can begin by not burying our head in the sand and pretending there isn’t a problem,” Poultney said.

“My hope,” Warren said, “is that we will continue to grow as a society to the point where we no longer need a National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.”

Categories: Staying Healthy

Tags: behavioral, health, mental, minorities