Sophia L. Thomas DNP, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP
Mental illness is one of the most prevalent health problems in this country. Roughly one in five people will struggle with mental illness, but despite its widespread impact, less than half will receive any treatment or counseling. Even though mental illness is among the leading causes of disability and one of the most expensive ailments plaguing our health care system, there remains a great divide between recognizing mental illness and embracing it as a legitimate and potentially serious medical condition.
This is especially true for minorities. Mental illness does not discriminate, and while the prevalence among minority populations mirrors the rest of the population, minorities are 20 percent more likely to experience mental health challenges, in part because many are living with unmet needs. Not surprisingly, twice as many minorities don’t receive mental health services – which means most don’t get any care at all.
What is going on here? More importantly, what can we do to change it? Minority mental health concerns were flagged by the Surgeon General 20 years ago, and in that time, not a lot has changed. Here are four ways to jump start better minority mental health in your community today:
- Treat mental illness like any other illness. There’s a real reluctance to prioritize mental health like we do physical health, but depression can be just as dangerous as heart disease. We can’t address mental health issues if we don’t first acknowledge them, which means understanding the risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems, and knowing when and how to seek help. Regular visits with a primary care provider (PCP) such as a nurse practitioner (NP) should address mental health, and your PCP should be your first call when you suspect a problem.
- Ditch the stigmas. We would never say a cancer diagnosis is “all in your head,” but culturally we perpetuate this misperception with mental illness. Minorities especially struggle with acceptance – many think even mild depression or anxiety would be considered “crazy” in their social circles. Disproving dangerous stigmas by talking about mental health, validating concerns, supporting those who suffer and encouraging more people to prioritize their mental health will help ensure more people feel comfortable seeking care.
- Know the difference between physical and emotional symptoms. Because physical illness is more culturally accepted than mental illness, we tend to be more inclined to talk about physical ailments like headaches or digestive problems without addressing underlying causes like stress or sadness. Understanding that physical and mental illness are often tied together can lead to more accurate diagnoses and better long-term treatments, so talk to your provider about mental health struggles that may be impacting your physical health.
- Find a provider you trust. Research tells us people are more inclined to visit a provider they know and trust, and that foundation is built with regular interaction. Annual visits with a PCP help to establish a baseline for conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, and the same is true for mental health. Minorities especially tend to fare better when they see culturally competent providers who understand both their physiological needs and their beliefs about health and wellbeing, but a shortage of providers has made finding the right provider difficult. If you live in an underserved area, look for an NP in your community. NPs can be found in many locations, from large urban areas to small rural communities, where care is hard to come by and may offer a quality solution to help address your mental health needs.
As hard as it is for anyone to get proper mental health care in the United States, it’s even harder for minorities. Not only do they have the same problems with insurance, long wait times, difficulty finding specialists and sky-rocketing deductibles, but they face added struggles with accessing quality care and overcoming cultural barriers that affect acceptance and treatment for mental health. Prioritizing mental health alongside physical health and embracing mental health challenges in our social circles – especially among minority populations – will help correct inadequacies in our system and drive people with mental health challenges to the providers who are ready and waiting to treat them.