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The mental health disparities faced by people of color

World Mental Health Day: The mental health disparities faced by people of color

Racism and stigma make it harder for people of color to get services, and it’s gotten worse during the coronavirus pandemic.

Published October 10, 2020

Richelle Concepcion still remembers the name she was called after trying to stop a White kid who was picking on younger peers on the swim team in high school.

“Shut the f**k up, you Oriental b*tch!” that kid yelled at her so many years ago.

Though Concepcion, a Filipina American, wasn’t the only person teased by that kid at her school in San Francisco, she was the only one called a racial slur.

“After that event, I spent time ruminating on the experience and went over scenarios in my head about what I could have said back, whether I was indeed what he called me, etc.,” said Concepcion, now a psychologist at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, via email.

The racially motivated event and long-term subjection to stereotypes were two of many experiences “that inspired my work, as I tend to be very cognizant of the experiences of my patients who identify as people of color,” she added.

Mental health issues affect everyone, but people of color — Black, Latinx, Asian and Native American people — have higher rates of some mental health disorders and face greater disparities in getting help than White people. Those issues are primarily due to lack of access to services resulting from institutional discrimination, interpersonal racism and stigma — which can all harm the psyche of people of color in places where they are not the majority.

Such disparities have existed for decades, but “what we’re seeing is that some of the stresses that are associated with being a member of a marginalized group have been exacerbated during the pandemic,” said Brian Smedley, the American Psychological Association’s chief of psychology in the public interest and acting chief diversity officer.

During the pandemic, many people have experienced mental health stressors such as unemployment, sick and lost loved ones, disrupted social lives, insecurity about the future and a lack of internal peace — all of which threaten people’s socioeconomic status and stress levels. And minorities already disproportionately experience those misfortunes.

“There’s a high likelihood that (the pandemic) is also affecting mental health and well-being for these populations as well,” added Smedley, who leads the APA’s efforts to apply the science and practice of psychology to the problems of human welfare and social justice.

The mother of Maximino Avila — or Wachinhin Ska (“White Plume”) in Lakota, the eponymous language of the Native American tribe — “died an addict on Market Street” in San Diego when White Plume, now 33, was a child.

“My first introduction into intergenerational trauma was realizing that’s what (my drug addiction stemmed from) after I got sober,” White Plume, who is an activist in his community, said. “I didn’t realize I had been experiencing it my whole life coming from