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Mental illness among minorities: Diagnosis and treatment lags behind

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has declared July to be National Minority Mental Illness Awareness Month. Although the Social Security Administration recognizes many mental illnesses as disabilities, members of minority groups are far less likely to seek either SSD benefits or treatment. NAMI would like to change this.

In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that minorities are not only less likely to seek treatment, but they also have less access to treatment and care. Moreover, minority subjects seldom participate in mental health studies and research, making it difficult to ensure that those who do seek treatment receive optimum care.

The numbers bear this out. Only half of African Americans receive needed mental health care, and only 24 percent of Hispanics seek mental health treatment for depression and anxiety. In contrast, 34 percent of whites with the same diagnoses seek and receive treatment. Why?

Factors that hinder mental health diagnosis and treatment in minority communities include:


Individuals whose first language is not English face many barriers in life, but trying to describe psychiatric symptoms to a physician is probably one of the biggest. According to the mental health channel HealthyPlace, thirty-five percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders live in households where the primary language is not English and 40 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. do not speak English.


Many people in minority communities view mental illness as shameful and not something to mention to a medical provider. Moreover, culture can determine how individuals in various cultural groups respond to their symptoms. Because of the lack of research on mental illness in minority populations, physicians are often unaware of culturally-derived reactions to specific illnesses. Cultural barriers mean that people delay seeking help until absolutely necessary, when the condition may be more difficult to treat.

Accessible health care

Individuals experiencing symptoms of mental illness are most likely to first seek help from a primary care provider. However, members of minority groups are less likely to have a regular source of medical care. Thirty percent of Hispanics and 20 percent of African Americans do not have a regular doctor or other health care provider.

Whether or not you are a member of a minority group, it is important that you receive treatment and help when a mental illness makes it impossible to work. At Binder & Binder, the national Social Security disability advocates, we help people suffering from mental illness obtain the disability benefits they need and deserve.

Source:, "Mental Illness and Minorities," Nov. 30, 2011.

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