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A Conversation on Racial Disparities in Mental Health Treatment

July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, a designation made to enhance awareness about mental health illness among diverse populations.

Monnica Williams, director of  the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, spoke recently to WFPL about ensuring the psychological and emotional well-being of people of color. (This report has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Why is it important to specifically address the mental health of people of color?

If medical professionals aren't aware, then ethnic minorities end up getting the wrong treatment. They may get misdiagnosed, they may not get treated at all for something that's easily treatable. Not to mention there's always a lot of social taboos surrounding mental health care in the African American community. So, a lot of times people of color won't go for help until it's already a crisis, and at that point they really need someone who knows what they're doing so that they can get the help they need at that point rather than trying to get help—and either getting the wrong kind of help or getting turned off to treatment because the provider wasn't sensitive to their needs.

As a mental health provider, how do you go about considering a person's culture, race and ethnicity when caring for them?

Some of it is having some education and knowledge of their culture in advance, ideally. Now, sometimes you see people from other cultures that you have no experience with and I think it's important to seek out some information about that person's culture so you can better serve them. It's also important to ask the person what their experience is like because you don't want to just rely on statistics—or worse yet stereotypes—about that person's group to understand them. It's best if you can learn a few things directly from them. I think it's going to be a combination of education and getting to know your patient.

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Are there any differences between treating white people and people of color?

African Americans are more likely to be over-diagnosed with psychotic disorders, things like paranoia schizophrenia. Because they may be very fearful—having had many bad experiences in the past—and so they may be mistrustful. We might call that healthy cultural paranoia but a medical professional may misdiagnose that as a thought disorder and then recommend that person take anti-psychotic medication or be hospitalized against their will.

Can you explain race-based stress and trauma, and how it plays out in an individuals daily life?

A lot of us who are people of color, we experience discrimination either overtly or covertly throughout our lives. Also, we have a cultural memory of things that have happened to us going all the way back to slavery—knowing all of that, and then hearing things in the media about unarmed black men being shot or black people being killed in a place of worship. These are traumatic for us many times because we have all of this cultural knowledge already. The addition of these sorts of things can cause race-based stress and trauma, or even just dealing with it day to day, it eventually wears on you. A lot of people end up having problems like depression, anxiety, anger and they sometimes can't cope anymore.


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