By Kevin Powell, Office of the Chief Medical Officer
What is the leading cause of disability in the United States? Cancer? Heart disease? Well, you might be surprised to learn that mental illness is the correct answer.
One in five Americans will experience a mental health problem in their lifetimes, yet nearly two-thirds of people that are diagnosed with a mental illness do not seek treatment. While mental illness does not discriminate, it disproportionately affects minority communities. In May 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives proclaimed July as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, providing the opportunity to come together and increase awareness of mental illness and mental health promotion while embracing the diversity of our community. This month must be seen as an opportunity to not only increase awareness for mental illness, but also to promote long-term solutions that address the uniqueness of America’s minority communities.
Did you know that minorities are less likely to receive diagnosis and treatment for their mental illness, have less access to and availability of mental health services, often receive a poorer quality of mental health care, and are underrepresented in mental health research? Still, the greatest barrier to treatment is the stigma associated with mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), levels of stigma associated with mental health conditions are much higher in multicultural communities. It is important that we continue to de-stigmatize the issue of mental health because it has been ignored for far too long. Mental illness is equally as detrimental to the minority population as any other illness or conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and other physical illnesses. Mental disorders are as disabling as cancer or heart disease in terms of premature death and lost productivity. Unfortunately, many Americans are unaware that mental wellness is just as important as physical wellness.
Are you ready for the good news? The Affordable Care Act (ACA) supports multiple strategies to target access issues: over half of the uninsured population are minorities, the ACA will expand coverage for potentially 13 million of these individuals; ACA provisions for integrating mental health and primary care and the support for “health homes” have been highlighted as strategies that will improve access for minority populations who more readily access services in primary care settings; improvement in standards for data collection will help pinpoint needs in these populations; and support for community health workers and promotoras will bring trusted messengers to engage people in these underserved communities. Also, the ACA has created Offices of Minority Health in six agencies across the Department of Health and Human Services.
Remember, we must all be part of the solution and work to invest in mental health services for those who need help. Utilize National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and help raise awareness in your organization or community. Encourage your family, friends, and loved ones to learn more about improving mental health and illness.
For more information on Minority Mental Health: