Mental health is just as important as physical health. Unfortunately, not everyone in the United States has access to the same level of care and the resources they need to treat any issues and maintain optimal mental health. Health disparities are a huge problem when it comes to accessing quality mental healthcare.
What are Health Disparities?
Health disparities are preventable differences in the care that people from disadvantaged groups receive. Resources, environment, and discrimination all play a role in health disparities. Health disparities lead to worse health outcomes overall and further harm vulnerable communities.
Mental health disparities can be caused by a lack of access to quality healthcare facilities and transportation, low provider availability, provider biases, incarceration, poverty, language barriers, and more. Systemic problems keep people from receiving the mental and physical healthcare they need when they need it the most, which can have devastating consequences.
Although there are many populations that face disparities in mental healthcare, some are more affected than others. Social factors are the biggest cause of mental health inequalities. Here are the groups that tend to be affected the most by mental healthcare disparities.
Ethnic & Racial Minorities
Systemic racism continues to be a major factor in health disparities. As a result of discrimination and differences in generational wealth, people in some ethnic and racial minority groups are more likely to live in poverty, limiting their ability to acquire comprehensive healthcare coverage and mental healthcare.
In the United States, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American populations are less likely overall to get the mental healthcare they need than White Americans. One 2015 report showed that while 48% of White Americans used mental health services, only 31% of Blacks and Hispanic Americans, and 22% of Asian Americans used these services.
Some groups are simply less likely to be offered medication or therapy than others. Mentally ill Black Americans, in particular, are often given fewer opportunities for mental healthcare and are more likely to be incarcerated.
Those who identify as being gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender often face discrimination in healthcare and other settings. They are also more likely to face bullying at school or in the workplace.
LGBTQ+ individuals are more than twice as likely than cisgender, heterosexual individuals to have a mental health condition at some point during their lives. Getting compassionate care is often a challenge, especially in regions where discrimination is common.
The Unhoused Population
People who are experiencing homelessness lack access to even basic services and often have no access to mental healthcare. This is especially concerning considering that mental illness is a risk factor for homelessness.
Many unhoused people do not have access to their mental health medications, even if they have been prescribed them. The stress involved with homelessness is also associated with increased psychiatric distress. Ultimately, those experiencing homelessness often find themselves in a vicious cycle of mental illness that is difficult to break without significant help.
Those who have served in the military often come back to civilian life with invisible scars. Many soldiers experience PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) requiring long-term psychiatric treatment. Although veterans have their own healthcare facilities through the federal government, they often do not get access to the help and resources they need to cope with mental health disorders, whether caused by their military experiences or not.
Immigrants and Refugees
When people come to the United States as immigrants or refugees, they are often unable to bring much with them. Undocumented immigrants often have no access to mental health services, while refugees may be offered inadequate or confusing options that limit their ability to access mental healthcare.
Many people who come to the United States are leaving family members behind in poverty, or leaving war-torn countries that have become extremely unsafe. Their mental health needs can be complex, yet they rarely get access to the care they need.
Everyone Deserves Mental Health Equity
Health disparities are a major, complex problem caused by a variety of factors. When it comes to mental health, usually the most vulnerable groups are the ones with the least access to the resources they need to thrive. Everyone deserves to have their mental health taken seriously and the ability to work with a caring provider when needed.
Equality is not enough in mental health services. Equity is the practice of ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to work toward optimal mental health, which sometimes means allocating extra resources to those who need them. Working towards mental healthcare equity and focusing on the populations that have the greatest need is key.