By Rebecca Kim
Despite our nation’s growing diversity and the disproportionately higher rate at which people of color (POC) experience adverse mental health outcomes and barriers to care, the mental health workforce is largely white. According to a report from the American Psychological Association, 86% of U.S. psychologists in 2015 were white, and in 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that close to 70% of U.S. social workers and 88% of mental health counselors were white.
If you’re a person of color (POC), these statistics probably aren’t surprising. Trying to find a therapist who shares your racial or ethnic background can feel like a game of Where’s Waldo — and in mental health, a field where white saviorism often runs unchecked, the consequences of this lack of diversity, including the inability to adequately support the unique cultural needs and experiences of POC, are often ignored.
Oftentimes, practitioners and policymakers question why it matters “who the help comes from” or they attribute POC’s low use of mental health services to cultural stigma. While plausible, this can be an incomplete way of thinking.
As a mental health care worker and graduate student in social work, I’ve often wondered: What if the barriers to care that underserved groups experience is due to a lack of providers who POC can identify with and trust?
I didn’t truly understand the importance of having a counselor or therapist I could identify with until I sought help myself. The handful of Asian-American therapists in my city already had waitlists. So, instead of talking with someone who understood my cultural nuances or the daily experience of navigating a white-dominated society as an Asian woman, I often carried the burden of educating white therapists about my identity. For example, I found myself tasked with explaining why a “normal” experience for a white person might be anxiety-inducing for me.
Similarly, when I worked as a psychiatric nurse, my most vulnerable patients rarely encountered mental health professionals from their own communities of color or from similar cultural backgrounds — in addition to facing numerous other barriers in accessing care. Again, I witnessed the personal ramifications of this deficiency; my own mother lived in an area with a historically large immigrant population, yet she was unable to find a counselor or therapist who spoke her language when she was depressed.
These issues are part of a larger problem in our country regarding the lamentable shortage of POC mental health professionals to match our increasingly diverse population.
As of 2019, about 40% of the U.S. population identified with a racial or ethnic group other than white, and estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that the results of the 2020 census will indicate a record decline in our nation’s white population over the past decade. As the data shows, POCs already comprise a significant portion of our country’s population, and numbers are only projected to grow.
More recently, mental health issues have gained national recognition, but we need to take action to create impactful change for this demographic.
It’s true that more POCs are entering the mental health field than before, but we need greater numbers — in both urban and rural communities — to more accurately reflect the demographics of our country. To challenge this shortage, federal policy initiatives should actively recruit students of color to the mental health workforce, and grants provided at city or state levels could help expand mental health care services to local communities of color.
Special focus should be taken to create job opportunities and recruit students from communities that have the greatest need for a representative mental health workforce. Federal funds can support students’ professional education through scholarships and the forgiveness of loans — and grants to schools, organizations, and/or agencies can support the creation of jobs and programs that promote students’ personal, academic and professional well-being. Grants may also be used to train diverse peer specialists — or individuals who have experienced mental health challenges themselves and provide support to those in need — from within local communities of color.
Research shows that use of ethnic matching (pairing a client with a therapist based on race/ethnicity alone) is not always effective, and understandably so. This technique by itself is reductive and equivalent to saying a white client can connect with any white therapist.
POC mental health professionals should be available to the extent that people of all backgrounds have the option to select therapists or work with professionals they feel best match their needs. By investing in a more representative mental health workforce, people of color can partake in more choices for their practitioners, and mental health care can hopefully become more accessible and equitable.
Rebecca Kim is a graduate student in social work at the University of Texas at Austin with a background in psychiatric nursing. She is passionate about serving and raising awareness on the mental health needs of minority communities.
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