Disparities Within Minority Mental Health Care

JUL. 31, 2017

By Larry Shushansky, LICSW


Have you ever tried to unlock a door that wouldn’t open? At first, you think you might be doing something wrong. Maybe there’s a trick to it. You pull the key back a little—doesn’t work. You wiggle the key—doesn’t work. You keep trying, but the door stays locked. After a while, you realize the problem isn’t you, it’s the key.

This is what it’s like for minorities trying to access mental health care.

As hard as it is for anyone to get proper mental health care in the United States, it’s even harder for racial, ethnic, religious and gender minorities. Not only are there the problems most of us experience—issues with insurance, long wait times, difficulty finding specialists, sky-rocketing deductibles and co-pays—but there are added burdens of access and quality-of-care.

Why is This Happening?

Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General” states: “Despite the existence of effective treatments, disparities lie in the availability, accessibility and quality of mental health services for racial and ethnic minorities.” This report talks about the lack of large-scale research that applies specifically to minority populations. Research is necessary to gain information about prevention, access, service delivery and quality-of-care. And the scary thing is: This report came out in 1999 and its findings still hold true today 18 years later—research and information about minority mental health is still severely lacking.

In “Eliminating Mental Health Disparities by 2020: Everyone’s Actions Matter,” Regina Bussing and Faye A. Gary write: “In the decade since the Surgeon General’s landmark publication, its basic findings of striking disparities for minorities in mental health services have not changed. As shown in the most recent National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Reports, racial and ethnic minorities still have less access to mental health services than whites, and when they receive care, it is more likely to be of poorer quality.”

There are many reasons why minorities aren’t getting proper care. Here are some of them:

  • A lack of availability
  • Transportation issues, difficulty finding childcare/taking time off work
  • The belief that mental health treatment “doesn’t work”
  • The high level of mental health stigma in minority populations
  • A mental health system weighted heavily towards non-minority values and culture norms
  • Racism, bias, and discrimination in treatment settings
  • Language barriers and an insufficient number of providers who speak languages other than English
  • A lack of adequate health insurance coverage (and even for people with insurance, high deductibles and co-pays make it difficult to afford)

How Can We Help Change The Status Quo?

The mental health system is flawed. We all know that and many of us have experienced it personally. But all mental health advocates should band together in improving the status quo for those who are the least likely to both seek and receive treatment. Those who are most vulnerable to the systemic disparities of getting help. Those who only get the spotlight for one month out of the year. Together, we need to raise the bar for better mental health care for everyone, especially minorities. You can get started by doing the following:

  • Encourage mental health organizations to include minorities on staff or boards of directors.
  • Write, call or talk to legislators—both local and federal—to support efforts to improve access to and the quality of mental health services in your area.
  • Be a spokesperson when there is an opportunity to speak out on behalf of minority mental health.
  • Share information you’ve learned about accessing quality care to others.
  • Try to be more open and understanding towards what minority communities might be experiencing that you might not.

Whether you have personally experienced the challenges associated with minority mental health or whether you are advocating for a better mental health system, anyone can help make a difference. Opening the doors to quality mental health care for minorities is challenging, but we can all do our part in making the right keys for easier access and quality care.


Larry Shushansky has seen thousands of individuals, couples and families over 35 years as a counselor. Larry has developed the concept of Independent Enough and shares this when giving talks to businesses, non-profit organizations and educational institutions. To get more speaking info go to http://www.independentenough.com/speaker-information/. You can also follow his blog.


AUG, 30, 2018 05:14:05 PM
Mary Powell
Great topic. It's been quite a journey for me; figuring out how to manage my own mental health issues within the confines of poverty. I've often patted myself on the back at how resourceful and proactive I've been about advocating for myself and educating myself so that I can better manage the beast that is mental illness in my life. However.... lately, it's been slowly dawning on me how all the things I've had to overcome, although legitimately hinderances, are more like an annoying rock in my shoe when I realize how exponentially more difficult everything else is in this country if you are poor AND brown. If I were not white...the poverty would be just one of several insurmountable barriers. I don't owe my success in managing my own mental health to my own self-sufficiency...I owe that success to the color of my skin because of the privilege that goes with it includes easier access...and that is utterly unacceptable in this wealthy country of immigrants.

AUG, 09, 2017 02:32:33 AM
Brenda Henderson
Thanks for these words of encouragement I have a family member that has mental illness. I have been on a merry go round for years now dealing with my son. Nevertheless I keep fighting for change and God knows it has not been easy just knowing I am not alone helps I will not give up. Thank you!!!!!

AUG, 08, 2017 10:02:30 AM
Bre Suggs
I strongly appreciate this post. As a African American minority who has a lived experience with mental health as well as a family member and friend to several minorities diagnosed with a SMI, its important that this is addressed. It's frustrating to see the lack of quality culturally sensitive and culturally competent programming or services administered in our communities. When people do reach out for help, recovery isn't usually a part of the conversation and those who are servicing the minority population can't identify and relate to the cultural struggles you face as someone who struggles with mental health. I'm hoping to be a part of that change.

AUG, 01, 2017 12:39:02 PM
Lizanne Corbit
Such an important post!! Thank you for sharing this. This is the kind of information that sadly, so few people are aware of, and it's so important to make this common knowledge. Education is one of the biggest tools we have to overcoming stigma and disparity and posts like these are a powerful embodiment of change in action.

Submit to the NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.