Mental illness affects all of society

Mental illnesses do not discriminate. They affect all segments of American society, rich and poor, young and old, white and black, Hispanic and Asian. However, when people of color experience mental health problems, they face countless obstacles to seeking and receiving appropriate care.

Among the barriers to mental health care for minority groups are socioeconomic status, disparities in health insurance coverage and a lack of cultural competency in the mental health field.

Minorities disproportionately represent the ranks of the poor. According to the United States Surgeon General’s recent report on mental health, people in the lowest socioeconomic strata are roughly two-and-a-half times more likely than those in the highest strata to have a mental disorder, and often lack health insurance. A joint report of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation shows that of the 43 million Americans who have no health insurance, more than 30 percent are Hispanic and 20 percent are African American, compared with 12 percent of Caucasians.

To compound these problems, ethnic and minority groups have a general mistrust of the mental health system, in part because they have been institutionalized at much higher rates than Caucasians. Moreover, experience and cultural identity influence one’s willingness to seek, and ability to respond to, mental health services. Many minorities have different styles of coping with day-to-day problems, and unique perspectives on mental illness and its treatment. Our current system is not prepared to handle such diverse patterns of belief. As the U.S. Surgeon General said in his mental health report, "The U.S. mental health system is not well-equipped to meet the needs of racial and ethnic minority populations."

And the minority population is growing. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates racial minorities will constitute 47 percent of the nation’s population by the year 2005. The Caucasian population, which now represents 75 percent of all Americans, will shrink to a bare majority by 2050. This demographic shift signals the need for the mental health system to address the needs of all consumers, not just the slim majority.

In an effort to eliminate disparities in mental health care in America, many practitioners and health care organizations, including CPC Behavioral Healthcare, are embracing "cultural competency," an effort to effectively respond to culturally specific attitudes and customs in the mental health care setting. Cultural competency also reflects a vision for a just, humane and healthy society in which people are accorded respect, dignity and the opportunity to achieve their full potential, free from stigma and prejudice.

As the face of the nation changes, our mental health system must reflect that change. By working to eliminate the many barriers to care, we can ensure that all Americans, including people of color, have affordable access to mental health services that meet their individual needs.

Jeanne H. Wurmser

President and

chief executive officer

CPC Behavioral Healthcare