Racial Equity in Minority Mental Health: Empowering Change

Racial Equity in Minority Mental Health: Empowering Change

By Linda Washington-Brown, PhD, EJD, MSN, PNP, ANP-C, FNP, FAANP, FAAN

July is Minority Mental Health Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 51 million Americans over the age of 18 reported having a mental illness. There are currently more than 200 classified types of mental illnesses, but some of the main types are:

  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Bipolar disorders.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Depression.
  • Psychosis or schizophrenia.

Mental health issues impact individuals from all walks of life, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this problem. This is especially true within minority communities, with the increased struggle to deal with social inequities and health disparities related to living conditions and work environments, among a host of other issues. This combination has worsened stress and increased mental health concerns. 

One of the most significant barriers to mental health care for these communities is a lack of openness to receiving treatment and stigmas surrounding admitting that help is needed. It is time to break this cycle, and thankfully, some high-profile African Americans are leading the way:

  • Tennis star Naomi Osaka recently shared her struggles with mental health that have come through dealing with the stress and burden placed on minorities participating in traditionally white-dominated sports. 
  • Former Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall announced that he had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) to help break the stigma around receiving treatment.  
  • Pop music star Janet Jackson has been very open about her struggles with depression and has been a vocal supporter for raising awareness of these issues within the African American community. 

As a nurse practitioner (NP), I have seen countless patients who have dealt with mental health issues, including a pro athlete who was released from his contract, which started a downward spiral of depression and substance abuse. Mental health truly affects all minority communities, from the regular person to those at the pinnacle of sports and entertainment. 

The top two disorders that people should be aware of are anxiety and depression. Anxiety is a normal stress reaction. It helps one deal with a tense situation, but when it morphs into an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, anxiety becomes a disabling disorder. Similarly, depression is more than just feeling down or having a bad day. When a sad mood lasts for a long time and interferes with everyday functioning, a person may be clinically depressed. An NP can help people differentiate the symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

Anxiety symptoms tend to cluster around excessive, irrational fear and dread, with each anxiety disorder having different symptoms. For example, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may present with worrying accompanied by fatigue, headaches, muscle tension or other physical symptoms. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) patients may have persistent, unwelcome thoughts or images or the urgent need to engage in certain rituals. People experiencing a panic disorder may present with feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly without warning. These feelings are frequently accompanied by a rapid heartbeat, sweating, weakness, faintness and dizziness. Lastly, social phobia victims have a persistent, intense and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others, embarrassed or humiliated Social phobia is often accompanied by blushing, profuse sweating and other physical symptoms.

Symptoms of depression usually present with feelings of sadness or anxiety. A person will experience a lack of interest in activities that use to be fun, irritability, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, sleeping too much or waking up too early. They typically will lack appetite or overeat, experience pains and aches and have difficulty concentrating, remembering details or making decisions.

Anxiety disorders are generally treated with a combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), with effective results. Many people with anxiety disorders also benefit from support groups, family counseling and educational resources. In addition, there are several treatments available for depression that can help reduce symptoms or shorten how long the depression lasts, including therapy sessions or medications. 

The first and most crucial management goal is to encourage patients to start a conversation with someone they trust, preferably a health care professional trained in mental health counseling. Patients should participate in support groups and family counseling and utilize educational resources. Most therapy lasts for a short time and focuses on thoughts‚ feelings and issues in a person’s life. 

Medications can also be effective at treating anxiety and depression. Taking prescribed anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications can help improve a person’s mood and coping skills. If you or someone close to you is experiencing symptoms related to mental health, speak with a health care provider, like an NP, to determine which treatment options might work best.

Mental health issues can have significant adverse effects on minority populations. If Mental health support is needed, individuals or family members must find a treatment provider in the area. If the person is in crisis or in danger of harming themselves or others, dial 9-1-1 for emergency medical services and call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). Once a counselor is assigned, the individual needs to communicate with their primary care provider or another health care expert trained in mental health counseling. Those experiencing mental health symptoms should reach out to loved ones and close friends for support and, most importantly, adhere to any treatment guidelines prescribed by their health care provider.