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Linda Rosenberg

Former President and CEO, National Council for Behavioral Health

Health Disparities Deserve to be History: Stand Up All Year Against Discrimination

February 27, 2017 | Advocacy | Comments
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There is bias in policing: Black Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to be unarmed when they’re shot and killed by police officers.

There is bias in the marketplace: When whites and blacks were sent to bargain for a used car, blacks were offered initial prices roughly $700 higher, and they received far smaller concessions.

There is bias with Uber: Uber passengers with black-sounding names were more likely to have rides cancelled than those with white-sounding names.

And there is bias in health care.

Ethnic and racial minorities face illnesses earlier, deal with more rapid progression of illnesses and suffer higher rates of impairment and death than white Americans.

And behavioral health is part of the problem. It can also be part of the solution.

We can recognize that people of color are likely to be labeled as sicker and yet less likely to get care. Did you know that black people are 20 percent more likely to be diagnosed with a severe mental illness than the general population, but 40 percent less likely than whites to get help?

We can do better sooner. With the same rates of mental health issues, black and Hispanic children and young adults receive half the treatment. For children and youth of color, psychiatric and behavioral problems result in suspension, expulsion or incarceration, not mental health care. Black young adults receive one-seventh the substance abuse counseling compared to white teens.

We can grow the workforce. We need more providers of color. Currently, only 2 percent of psychiatrists, 2 percent of psychologists and 4 percent of social workers in the United States are African American.

We can face our biases. In a study last year, Heather Kugelmass, a doctoral student in sociology at Princeton University, had voice actors call to try to schedule appointments with therapists. She found that an identifiably black, working-class man would have to call 80 therapists before he was offered a weekday evening appointment. A middle-class white woman would only have to call five.

And we can recognize our role and responsibility in ending bias in behavioral health care.  “There’s no quality of care for people who can’t get through a therapist’s door,” notes Kugelmass.

Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

As Black History Month ends, let’s commit to moving toward justice, to facing the challenge of discrimination within our mental health and addictions communities.  Are we ready to stand up and to speak out?  Let me know your thoughts.


Editor’s note: As the voice of safety-net behavioral health organizations, the National Council believes a diverse mental health and addictions workforce helps eliminate health-related disparities. One way we contribute is through the National Council for Mental Wellbeing Addressing Health Disparities Leadership Program, which helps mid-level managers working in mental health and addiction service organizations gain the awareness, knowledge and leadership skills to help eliminate health disparities in their communities. The Addressing Health Disparities Leadership Program class of 2017 has just been announced. The 2017 participants join four previous classes in helping create clinically competent systems of care, led by diverse and compassionate leaders from throughout the United States.