Social Issues

Intersectionality and Where Race & Mental Health Collide

Where race and mental health collide – intersectionality matters

Race shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to mental health, but unfortunately, it is. I’m not talking about genetic susceptibilities to certain illnesses that can vary by ethnic group; rather, the issue is the impact of socially imposed ideas about race, and the lack of equality that results. To achieve social justice, more than just the mental health system needs to change. Change is required on a much broader scale to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to live healthy lives.

An article in Psychology Today says that the processes connecting race and poor health are “strongly tied to ethnic-racial biases and stigma, operate at multiple stages, namely at the intra-individual, interpersonal, and intergroup levels, and these different levels interact with structural-based resources that are frequently less available to stigmatized individuals.” If bias is occurring at each of these stages, that means that potential solutions can’t simply target a single stage.

Health disparities

A factsheet from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) outlines some of the mental health disparities observed among racial groups. Racial minorities tend to have a higher burden of disability as a result of mental illness. Depression rates in Black and Hispanic people are the same as in other ethnic groups; however, their depression tends to persist longer. Indigenous populations have higher rates of PTSD and alcoholism.

The APA also notes that about 50-75% of youth offenders have a mental illness, and racial minority groups are over-represented in the criminal justice system. Youth from racial minorities are more likely to be diverted to the criminal justice system rather than the mental health system compared to white youth.

Disparities in health care

There are also disparities when it comes to receiving care. Figures from 2015 show that 48% of white adults with mental illness received mental health services. For Black and Hispanic adults, that figure was only 31%, and for Asians 22%. Barriers included lack of insurance, high levels of stigma, lack of culturally competent mental health care practitioners, and distrust of the health care system.

Where to focus research

An article from the British Journal of Psychiatry argues the research into racial discrimination and mental health shouldn’t necessarily focus on those who are discriminated against. Doing so may medicalize “appropriate social struggle and distress” and reduce their struggles to simply a response to racism. It may also demonstrate institutional power over stigmatized groups. The article suggested that academic research should focus on those who discriminate rather than those who are discriminated against.

It’s an interesting perspective that I’m not sure I entirely agree with, as it would depend on the research method used. For example, participatory action research is driven by the participants and their identified needs on a community level, and that type of research could have great value in identifying specific areas for improvement regarding mental health.

The cumulative effects of oppression

It’s also important to recognize the effects that colonialization, slavery, and segregation have on an enduring basis through intergenerational trauma and deeply entrenched systemic racism, with deeply ingrained stereotypes. In Canada, the findings were recently released from the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Woman and Girls, calling it a genocide. The majority of society has treated this group as if they have no value, and that’s bound to have an effect on the mental health of their families as well as broader communities.

Somehow, far too many people have not gotten the message that we are all created equal. There is no health with mental health, and there is no justice without justice and equitable treatment for all.

You may also be interested in my reviews of the books The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health and Blackness Interrupted: Black Psychology Matters.

Social justice and equality

The Social Justice & Equality page has info and resources on a wide variety of social issues.

Visit the MH@H Resource Pages hub to see other themed pages on MH@H.


24 thoughts on “Intersectionality and Where Race & Mental Health Collide”

  1. Very informative! And sad!! I saw an episode of a sitcom years ago about a Hispanic family. I hated the program. I think it was called the George Lopez show. In this episode, his mother was lying on the sofa staring at the wall for hours on end because her house had burned down and she’d lost everything. His wife said, “I think she’s depressed. Shouldn’t we get her some help?” And George said, rather patronizingly, “Nah. Depression’s a rich white person’s disease. She’ll snap out of it.” And my eyebrows shot up. Like, are you kidding me? Get your mother to a doctor!

    1. Let me explain that, being a person who works in the mental health sector as a therapist and who is also of Caribbean heritage, most commonly referred to as black. We can not afford to deal with out mental health issues due to social, financial hindrances, we just don’t have the resources for it. Not to mention the fear that comes with it. Maybe you aren’t aware but the mental health sector did a lot of experimentation on drugs and experiments on people from minority ethic groups. The savage treatment of slavery has yet to be fully disclosed, there were also a lot of experimentation which took place and due to the severity of the results it will never be disclosed. Yes we hide it and it is not healthy by no means, we just never had the privilege to be dealt with as human beings. It is getting better but there is still a stigma, maybe more articles explain the inequality is necessary for readers to register that this is s huge problem. The last thing we want is to be patronised and see as poor minority group as we have enough of that to last another 500 years. What we need is access to therapy with people we feel we can trust. hopefully more people read the article and learn something.

      1. There’s certainly still a long way to go. Awareness is a start, but like you said, access to safe and appropriate therapy is absolutely necessary.

  2. Yes, there is a HUGE stigma in the Asian-American community. When I was first hospitalized my dad told me that Filipinos don’t have depression (????). Fortunately, he is more knowledgable now and, in fact, his girlfriend, who is Filipino, is studying to be a mental health nurse.

  3. Great write up. I have a friend..who is African American..who told me that you are basically told to brush things far as mental health goes. Therapy is not discussed. I guess it is looked at as a weakness. I did talk her in to taking steps to seek out a counselor for herself. She did. She is now in therapy (although she is not sure if it’s really helping). However, we broke that cycle in her family. It’s a shame. There is so much that bothers me with the way mental health is treated. We have therapists and psychiatrists that do not have to take insurance. Therefore, if you want to see a specialist, you may have to pay hundreds of dollars to do so. With that, the person is not getting the right help. They are going to a therapist that has no specialty (i.e. in OCD) which can hinder any progress or make it worse for the patient. I understand the logic behind it (lots of continuing education)…however, our insurance companies should be willing to pay the same for mental health as they would for physical health. The insurance should pay enough that the therapists will accept it. Thanks for your article. It’s a shame that people have to hold off on therapy…when they really need it.

      1. Agreed. I wish there was something that could be done. I have written our congressman. I had one respond to me..but it didn’t go anywhere. I am not sure if he was even re-elected. Need to keep pushing.

  4. This was a very informative post, and for me brought up the seldom discussed but important topic of the intersection of race and mental health.

    How would you feel about my sharing this post on my blog at some point? The intersection of race and mental health is an important topic to bring up and spread awareness about, so I thought that I would ask!

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