Minority Mental Health in America: Understanding the Differences, Barriers, and Stigma

Members of minority communities in the U.S. do not have higher rates of mental illness, but they suffer greater disability as a result of mental health issues. They also face more barriers when it comes to accessing and using care. These include stigma, language differences, and insurance and costs. The result is that members of these communities are less likely to get care at all or to get effective and appropriate care.

Mental health is a growing issue for many people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate increased by 24% across all ages, genders, and races from 1999 to 2014. Ongoing mass shootings point to a problem with access to mental health care. More young people live with depression and substance abuse. More than half of all adults with mental illness don’t get the treatment they need, a statistic that has increased yearly since 2011.

Nearly all U.S. populations are struggling. While minority populations don’t necessarily have higher rates of mental illness, they do experience significant disparities and more risk factors, including trauma. Members of these communities often feel more stigmatized and less able or willing to access mental health care.

Mental Health Statistics in Minority Populations

Individuals who identify as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority make up nearly a third of the U.S. population. These so-called minority groups will become the majority within a few decades. It is crucial to understand how individuals experience mental illness but also the trends across groups.

  • Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) have similar rates of mental illness compared to the white population but carry a higher disability burden.
  • Black people living in poverty in the U.S. are more likely to report psychological distress than white people in poverty.
  • Black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than white teenagers.
  • Between 2008 and 2018, rates of serious mental illness rose in black Americans of all ages.
  • People who identify as multiracial are more likely to report mental illness than any other racial group. Twenty-five percent of multiracial people have mental illness.
  • According to Mental Health America screenings, members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to screen for or be at risk for substance use disorders, anxiety, depression, psychosis, and eating disorders.
  • Indigenous and native people are most likely to screen for or be at risk for PTSD or bipolar disorder, according to MHA.
  • Severe mental illness in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community grew from 2.9% to 5.6% from 2008 to 2018.
  • AAPI adults with mental illness are more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol.
  • Mental illness rates are lower in Latinx Americans than in white Americans. Rates are higher in those born in the U.S. than those born in another country.
  • Latinx individuals born in the U.S. struggle with mental distress associated with being part of two cultures.
  • Among the LGBTQ+ population, bisexual and transgender individuals reported feeling depressed or anxious more days than gay or heterosexual people.

These are just a few of the many statistics that illustrate how minority individuals and communities experience mental health differently.

Disparities in Mental Health Treatment

One of the most important differences between white and minority populations is access to and use of mental health services. By race, people who use these services the least are Latinx, Asian, and Black Americans. Multiracial, White, and Native and Indigenous people access services the most. Women in every group are more likely to use mental health services.

In 2015, 48% of white adults with any type of mental illness received care. This is compared to 31% of Black and Latinx individuals, and 22% of Asians.

There are also biases in providers of mental health treatment that prevent some people from getting adequate care. For example, according to the American Psychiatric Association, Black adults are more likely to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia compared to White adults with the same symptoms. The latter are more likely to get a mood disorder diagnosis. Those black patients are also less likely to be offered appropriate treatment.

According to several studies, Black adults with any mental illness are less likely than Whites to be provided evidence-based treatment. They are more likely to receive care that is not culturally competent. The disparities in care result in more persistent symptoms and episodes of mental illness.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community report high rates of being denied care by providers. Many also experience discriminatory language and judgmental attitudes from mental health and other health professionals.

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Barriers to Getting Mental Health Care for Minorities

The disparities in access to and use of mental health services exist because of specific barriers minority populations and individuals face. These obstacles are not restricted to people in minority communities, but they are more common:

  • Lack of insurance, being underinsured, and worries about costs of care
  • Mental illness stigma, which is often higher in minority populations
  • Language barriers with care providers
  • Limited diversity among providers, which can make minorities feel less safe or comfortable
  • Cultural incompetence in care providers
  • Lack of perceived need for care
  • Distrust of the medical and healthcare industry

The degree to which these barriers affect a particular group varies. Some people experience more stigma, while for others, language difficulty is the biggest obstacle. Poverty and lack of insurance impact some groups more.

Breaking the Barriers to Good Mental Health

The Affordable Care Act took important steps to eliminate barriers to mental health care in general. However, it did not go far enough to ensure minority groups access and get quality services. The industry and policies must specifically address and remove obstacles facing minority individuals.

Experts suggest specific measures that would help break the barriers. For instance, the deployment of mobile mental health units would reach more people. Mobile apps could also help, especially if they include translation services for patients who prefer a language other than English. They also recommend folding mental health care into other community services, like housing and job training.

Another meaningful change would be to expand the mental health workforce and offer diverse populations more options. Cultural competence is necessary to provide adequate and appropriate care to a diverse population. The health care industry must recruit more minorities to join the field and train as mental health professionals. This would decrease the stigma for patients who need to seek care and give them more competent providers and better results.

Mental illness remains stigmatized for many people. Linguistic, cultural, and financial barriers also continue to prevent people from getting the help they need. Greater awareness of the issue should ultimately lead to active changes in how and where services are delivered to all populations and individuals.