Minority Mental Health Issues Can be Complicated

by John Gregory | 07/14/14 4:12 PM

While some African Americans are reluctant to seek medical care in general, they often face additional and unique challenges when dealing with mental health concerns.

KET's Renee Shaw talked with two counselors about some of these problems on this weekend's Connections. Their discussion coincides with National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.

Why do some minorities tend to stigmatize mental health issues? Sycarah Fisher, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Education, says African-American communities have a complicated history with medical professionals and that some individuals perceive seeking help as a sign of weakness.

Life counselor and Kentucky State University assistant professor Shambra Mulder agrees, saying that spiritual beliefs also play a role in health-related decisions. The thinking is, "If you're seen as someone who needs outside help and can't just pray about it or can't just read the scriptures and get past [the problem], then you must not be faithful," Mulder explains.

A lack of minorities in the profession also adds to reluctance in seeking mental health care, Fisher and Mulder say. Some patients simply may not be comfortable sharing their concerns with a white doctor or counselor. Fisher says that while there are scholarship programs for minorities studying for advanced degrees in psychology or counseling, gaining admission to and completing degree programs still remains difficult for some students of color.

Diagnosis Issues
Even if an individual seeks care for a mental issue, receiving a correct diagnosis may be another challenge. Fisher says many measures used to identify behavior disorders don't take into account cultural differences found in African American or other minority communities. That can result in misdiagnosis, Fisher contends.

Patients who may not want to admit to symptoms of a mental illness further complicates the diagnostic process. Mulder says that if the patient doesn't want to hear a specific diagnosis of schizophrenia or depression, for example, then he or she may not tell a doctor about certain symptoms they're experiencing. If the patient is a child, they may not even have the language skills to articulate what they're feeling.

Mental Health Care for Children
While the government is placing a higher importance on mental health services for children, creating a network of care for a young patient is complicated. At home, parents or family members may not recognize when a child's behavior is abnormal. Then in school, Mulder and Fisher say teachers and school counselors can only address issues that pertain to a child's classroom performance, yet the child may have deeper traumas that should be addressed by a mental health professional. Finally community caseworkers are also vital in providing a continuum of care, but Fisher says they are likely over-worked and trying to juggle services for hundreds of children.

Fisher also contends it’s important for parents and teachers to focus not just on disruptive kids, but to also notice those children who may be especially quiet or withdrawn.

"You can see a lot of mental health issues apparent in very, very young children, and so you really need to be sure that you intervene early with those children," Fisher explains. "The longer you wait, the more severe the problem behaviors are going to get, and you're going to have more dire outcomes."

Watch the full Connections discussion.