Racism affects all areas of mental health care for people of color, but resources can help you find culturally competent professionals — those who will consider your background and culture when delivering care.

Mental health conditions can affect anyone, no matter their race, ethnicity, age, or gender. In the United States alone, 20% of adults experience mental illness each year, and 5% of those adults experience serious mental health conditions.

Though mental illness does not discriminate, many people of color seeking support and treatment face structural, institutional, and interpersonal hurdles. Every day, millions of people of color living with mental health conditions experience discrimination and prejudice that makes it difficult for them to access or receive the treatment they need to manage their condition.

Racism affects every area of mental health care for people of color ― from the availability of mental health services to the quality of care healthcare professionals provide — and more. Here are just a few of the many ways in which people of color experience the effects of racism in the mental health care field.

Racial bias and discrimination from providers

Racial bias plays a huge role in mental health professionals disproportionately diagnosing certain mental health conditions in people of color.

In a study from 2021, researchers explored the impact of implicit ― or unconscious ― racial associations on psychiatric care, including diagnosis and treatment.

Study results indicated that medical students and psychiatrists were more likely to associate psychotic disorders and antipsychotic medications with Black clients. In addition, participants were more likely to view Black people as being “noncompliant” when it came to treatment.

Lack of cultural competency in providers

Cultural competency in mental health care means having access to mental health professionals who provide effective care for people across different cultures. Culturally competent mental health professionals consider the way that someone’s culture, such as their language, beliefs, and values, affects their mental health care.

An article published in 2022 explored the impact of culture on mental health care experiences ― including diagnosis, treatment, and access to care ― in older people of color.

According to the research, cultural beliefs about health, language barriers, and the ignorance mental health care professionals exhibit about race-based trauma are just a few factors that can affect the BIPOC healthcare experience in the United States.

Underrepresentation in clinical trials and studies

Historically, people of color have been severely underrepresented in mental health research, especially in clinical trials and studies. Lack of representation in research leads to significant disparities in mental health diagnoses, treatment, and more for BIPOC patients.

In research published in 2016, experts identified various barriers that people of color living with cancer faced when enrolling in clinical trials.

Study results showed that both system-level and individual-level barriers make it more difficult for people of color to enroll in clinical trials. For example, systemic barriers included issues like lack of insurance or access to quality hospitals ― while individual barriers included factors like overt and implicit bias or discriminatory behaviors that healthcare professionals exhibited during patient encounters.

The impact of microaggressions

Microaggressions refer to actions that can seem harmless to those performing them but that create harmful and toxic environments for marginalized people.

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When it comes to accessing healthcare, including mental health care services, racism is one of the most significant barriers affecting people of color.

A study from 2020 explored the effects of discrimination on older adults living with mental health conditions. Study results showed that daily discrimination or discrimination in healthcare-related situations increased someone’s odds of experiencing a barrier to healthcare by two to three times.

While this study did include multiple types of discrimination, each type of discrimination led to a 1.3x increase in the odds of someone experiencing a barrier to care. So, for example, older adults who experience both ageism and racism may be over two and a half times more likely to delay or go without mental health services.

For people of color looking for effective mental health care, finding a culturally competent professional can be an important step.

High quality care starts with finding a therapist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional who understands how your culture impacts your healthcare needs.

Here are a few resources to consider checking out:

Until change happens on a much larger scale, people of color will continue to face significant barriers when it comes to accessing and using mental health care services.

For healthcare professionals, it’s important to acknowledge the impact that general and clinical beliefs can have on patient quality of care. But self-reflection is just one part of the equation. Education and a commitment to change are the most essential elements of being able to provide culturally competent care.

Organizational change is also crucial to addressing structural and systemic racism in mental health care.

Here are just a few of the many necessary steps that organizations can take to help address racism in the mental health services space:

  • Partnering with community leaders and other community-based organizations to improve access to mental health care services in communities of color.
  • Educating and diversifying local and community mental health care staff to provide culturally competent healthcare to clients of color.
  • Providing safe spaces for both patients and professionals to have open and honest discussions about race, ethnicity, culture, and racism.

At the end of the day, change flows from the top downward. Mental health care organizations and leaders hold the biggest responsibility in taking the first steps toward creating change.

From subtle microaggressions from healthcare professionals to structural racism that affects access to mental health services, racism is ever-present in the mental health care space.

Racism negatively affects the mental well-being of communities of color ― leading to disparities in diagnosis rates, treatment options, and much more.

If you’re interested in exploring more resources on how to advocate for yourself in health spaces as a person of color, consider checking out our Advocacy & Equity information hub.