July 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 www.independentenough.com/speaker-information. You can also follow his blog.

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