How Racial Differences May Affect Mental Health

People in minority groups may face unique challenges when they need mental health care.

What happens when an Asian-American woman is raped, but her cultural beliefs prevent her from telling anyone? What if a refugee from the Sudan needs help coping, but does not speak English?

A person's race or ethnic group doesn't cause them to have more mental health problems. Yet, minorities are more likely to be poor, homeless or have other problems that can lead to mental illness. Plus, minorities are less likely to have health insurance and health education. Others do not seek care because of language barriers.

Without these factors, the rates of mental illness in white Americans and minorities even out. Still, some studies show that minorities are less likely to get the right diagnosis and care than white Americans.

  • White Americans with depression are more likely than black Americans - and far more likely than Caribbean Americans - to get treatment.
  • White Americans are 75 percent more likely than Asian Americans to seek counseling.
  • Alaskan natives and Native Americans often do not have mental health services in the areas where they live.
  • A study showed Hispanic Americans were more accurately diagnosed when the doctor spoke Spanish. That normally is not the case in this country.

Cultural hurdles
There are many factors that may account for the seeming disparities in mental health care. To start, most therapists in the United States are white and many do not have a complete understanding of other cultures. Also, there is little mental health research on other races or ethnic groups.

Mental illness medications can be an issue as well:

  • Asian and black Americans absorb some drugs more slowly. Getting the wrong doses can lead to distrust.
  • Herbs used by many Asian Americans can make some medicines less effective.

Social factors can play a role, too. Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to talk to someone at their churches about their problems. Minorities with strong support networks have fewer mental illnesses than white Americans. Likewise, immigrants separated from members of their ethnic groups tend to have more problems.

Mental health demographics
Differences in the incidence of mental health problems among certain populations shown in studies can be due to complex genetic, cultural, economic or social factors.

  • Hispanic Americans have a higher rate of alcoholism than black or white Americans. They also have more depression and anxiety. More Latin American war veterans have post-traumatic stress than other vets.
  • Asian Americans often don't seek counseling. The stigma of shaming family and losing face is strong in their cultures. Asians age 15 to 24 and Chinese women age 65 and over have the highest suicide rates in the country. Asians are more prone to social anxiety, phobia and depression.
  • African Americans have higher rates of homelessness, jail time and violence. They also have more children in foster care. These factors raise mental illness rates. Phobias and post-traumatic stress strike this group more often. Fewer black Americans get depressed than other groups. However, they are less likely to get treatment. As a result, their symptoms worsen.
  • Native Americans/Alaska Natives: Alcoholism rates for Native Americans are twice as high as for other groups. From 2003 to 2006, the suicide rate among native Alaskans was three times that of non-native Alaskans. It was five times higher than the total U.S. rate.

Mental health care leaders are raising awareness about concerns related to minorities so health care providers can be better informed when developing treatments.



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