National Mental Health Awareness Month: Improving Mental Healthcare For All

Freedom Center Voices

May 1, 2023

National Mental Health Awareness Month: Improving Mental Healthcare For All

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Social media lights up with #selfcare and celebrities testify to the importance of mental health care in their lives, but there is still an ongoing mental health crisis in the United States. Even for those who want access to mental health care, too often barriers exist to access. This is particularly true in communities of color.

In 2020, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported that 21% – roughly 1 in 5 – U.S. adults experienced some form of mental illness. Further, 16.5% – about 1 in 6 – American youth ages 6-17 struggled with a “mental health disorder.” In total, that is roughly 60.6 million American men, women and children. This is just the tip of the iceberg, considering these numbers rely on self-reporting, which an individual may choose not to do for a variety of reasons.

Yet a very important nuance of the picture is missed when viewing the data from the broader level. Different ethnic and racial groups receive mental health care at different rates. See the bar graph (created from 2019 SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services)) for a visual representation of this discrepancy. In 2019, although about half of non-Hispanic white adults with mental health illnesses received treatment, less than a third of non-Hispanic African Americans suffering from mental health disorders received treatment. What gives?

Everyone faces barriers to mental health care, but individuals from minority communities are often uniquely disadvantaged when it comes to mental health access. Barriers can include lack of insurance (or underinsurance, as mental health care is sometimes not included in health care plans), lack of transportation to appointments, prohibitive cost, and more. According to a 2019 NAMI California survey, the three greatest obstacles to mental health care reported by diverse patients and caregivers were cost, stigma within their communities, and lack of culturally competent services. To quote one participant, “We have been knocking on county mental health services’ doors for years.”  

So, what can be done to improve mental health services and outcomes for diverse communities? One important early step is to work within communities and with community leaders to educate about mental illnesses and lower the stigma about seeking mental health services. It's important that practitioners address culturally-specific traumas as well as community strengths. For an example of one group that practices this, check out the Center for Native Child and Family Resilience. By giving priority to community leaders and centering traditional spiritual and healing customs in development of community programming (see this example of using the Indigenous Medicine Wheel), the Center offers more holistic outcomes than traditional social and mental health frameworks for many Native American and Alaskan Native communities. 

This is just one step. The United States also needs to commit to more comprehensive mental health care included in health insurance for all, as well as requiring ongoing implicit bias training and cultural competency courses for social workers and mental health care professionals. Poor mental health outcomes have adverse effects on not only individuals, but also families, communities, and society as a whole. It snowballs into something that affects everyone. The CDC has even called it a “global public health issue.” Considering the consequences, who wouldn’t be invested in improving mental health care for all?  

Better mental health for all starts with access for all. Are you interested in therapy, but worried about the cost? You may qualify for state-sponsored therapy. Check the following links for more information: 

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Haley Knuth - Specialist, Guest Services

Haley holds a Bachelor's degree in Acting and German from Wright State University, and a Master's degree in History from Miami University. 

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