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Addressing Mental Health Disparities in Minority Populations

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The Connection Between Mental Health and Health Outcomes is Undeniable

Mental health is the emotional, mental, and social well-being that shapes how we live, work, think, feel, interact with others, and manage stress. In recent years, mental health conversations have crept into the public consciousness, and it’s easy to see why: at least 20% of adults experience mental health issues, while 1 in 20 people will go on to experience a serious mental health crisis.

Today, it is widely recognized that mental health and physical health are inextricably linked. When a patient lives with depression, the incidence of cardiovascular disease nearly doubles, and the risk of a cardiac event is up to four times higher. Mental health disorders work in the reverse, as well — those living with chronic pain are four times more likely to experience depression, and 4% of all cerebrovascular accidents (including CVAs and strokes) are directly related to the presence of depression. Mental illness and substance use disorders are also the genesis of around 1-in-8 emergency department (ED) visits, a major cost driver for most healthcare organizations.

Acknowledging the impact of mental health in our society has fueled a movement to normalize and decrease the stigmas associated with them. Despite this, members of historically disenfranchised or minority populations continue to face a disproportionate number of challenges when it comes to diagnosing and treating mental and physical illness.

Understanding Minority Mental Health Disparities

Recognized in July, National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month calls attention to the disparities racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, and gender minority communities face regarding mental illness and mental health care in the United States. Minority populations are more likely to experience barriers to care, such as:

  • Lack of cultural sensitivity among health care workers
  • Limited treatment options
  • Stigmatization of mental health disorders
  • Fragmented support networks
  • Language gaps
  • Fewer resources to maintain health care, such as transportation, food, medical supplies, etc.
  • Inaccessible medical services
  • Lack of health coverage

LGBTQ+ Patients

LGBTQ+ populations often experience increased incidences of discrimination and risk of violence, translating to higher rates of mental health and substance abuse issues compared to heterosexual individuals. Members of the LGBTQ+ community also report longer periods of mental health struggles, with many experiencing issues in adolescence that persist well into adulthood.

In a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 67% LGBTQ+ people denoted incidence of mental health issues, most notably anxiety and depression, compared to 39% of non-LGBTQ+ identifying populations.

Native American Patients

Native American populations experience a significantly higher incidence of alcoholism and mental disorders. This crisis is compounded by the limited primary care resources available to Native American patients. According to the Indian Health Service, “American Indians and Alaska Natives born today have a life expectancy that is 5.5 years less than the U.S. all races population (73.0 years to 78.5 years, respectively).”

Muslim American Patients

Evidence on the incidence of Muslim American populations is scarce, but there is research to support an increased incidence of adjustment disorder.

Hispanic and Latin American Patients

Hispanic and Latin American populations report lower incidence of mental health disorders compared to non-Hispanic whites. However, those reporting symptoms are most often in the adolescent or older adult age brackets. Evidence found by Pew Research Center concludes that “Hispanic adults are less likely than other Americans to have health insurance and to receive preventative medical care.”

Asian American and Pacific Islander Patients

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander populations are the least likely to seek care for mental health concerns overall when compared to all other ethnic/racial groups, and they are three times less likely to do so compared to non-Hispanic whites. “Health Care Disparities Among Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Other Pacific Islander (NHOPI) People,” published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, provides detailed insights into the demographic breakdown of these patient populations and how the incidence of racism and historical trauma has impacted health outcomes for Asian American and NHOPI people.

Taking Action in the Present Drives Change for the Future

Mental health conditions are treatable and can be prevented, but minority populations are more likely to face challenges and barriers to care and treatment. Just as we understand the heart and lungs to be separate but interdependent organ systems, the field of medicine is increasingly recognizing the brain and body as a single system. Correcting the perceived schism between the two requires us to rethink healthcare strategy, organization, and funding.

Healthcare leaders must prioritize mental health wellness programs and monitor these programs for progress toward eliminating disparities. This can be accomplished by increasing workforce training to improve cultural sensitivity, encouraging the use of non-stigmatizing language, and normalizing mental health wellness checks at every face-to-face encounter. Healthcare organizations must include diverse perspectives and ideas when seeking feedback on initiatives and promote free or affordable resources to the communities that need them.

For more information on how Lightbeam supports organizations to make health care — including mental health care — more equitable and accessible to all disparate communities, contact me directly or reach out to


Shelley Davis, MSN, RNC, CCM is Lightbeam’s Vice President of Clinical Strategy.

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