- Minority Mental Health Awareness Month during the month of July offers a special opportunity for people of all backgrounds to evaluate their racial identity and take stock of their mental health, too.
- For many, a non-white racial identity can be an exhaustive burden—and can come with unique mental health risks.
- Despite a lack of representation for clients of color (especially women), the fields of mental health care and research are becoming more diverse—which is a benefit to clients who belong to minority groups.
- Minority Mental Health Awareness Month can be used to celebrate our individual cultures and identities and to remember that mental health conditions and concerns shouldn’t be stigmatized.
Race and mental illness can be highly stigmatized topics. For many of us, both subjects can often feel too complex or touchy to talk about. But the truth is that mental health and race are intertwined, whether we like to think about them that way or not.
This July, Minority Mental Health Awareness Month is a reminder that Americans of all backgrounds and ethnicities need to prioritize their mental health, and that it’s important for every American to understand how minorities may face increased risk for certain mental health conditions.
Who Started Minority Mental Health Awareness Month?
In 2005, renowned author and activist Bebe Campbell Moore started Minority Mental Health Awareness Month—as a way to raise concern and awareness for the unique cultural and racially-based risks that minority groups might face in America. The observance was adopted by the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI), solidifying it as a yearly observance each July.
Mental Illness Is a Universal Issue for All Americans
In the United States, our population is on track to become more diverse than ever before over the next 20 years. For many, this is a sign of progress and unity—good news.
And while communities and people of color are affected by mental illness, they aren’t always the most susceptible. The real issue with race and mental health, one that Minority Mental Health Month seeks to address, can be split into two parts:
- Minority communities and black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) face extra hurdles when it comes to getting access to mental health resources. One of those barriers is the universal cultural stigma attached to issues of mental illness, which is often higher in communities of color. BIPOC also may find themselves burdened by the additional weight of microaggressions and discrimination in all major aspects of their lives.
- Our long-standing biases and misconceptions about mental health resources are hurting us all, regardless of how we racially identify. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic did wonders for normalizing therapy and psychiatric care, there’s still la lot of work to be done.
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Why Is Minority Mental Health Important?
Minority mental health (and Minority Mental Health Awareness Month) is important because minorities are on track to become the majority of the American population (as referenced before) in the coming years. Secondly, minority mental health is important because all people deserve to be happy and to benefit from a life that is free from the struggles that come along with mental health concerns.
What Are the Barriers to Minority Mental Health?
Some of the most imposing barriers to minority mental health include stigma, the cost of care, and a lack of understanding surrounding the symptoms of mental health conditions.
Mental health professionals like Dr. Tiffany Haynes (Ph.D.) — an associate professor at the University of Arkansas’ College of Public Health and mental health researcher using her unique cultural background to her advantage —, are important, and they represent a more inclusive future for their profession. Currently, people of color and especially women of color, desperately need representation in clinical and research settings.
Haynes identifies as a black woman with roots in rural Arkansas and says her unique identity has helped her to “develop innovative and culturally-tailored research,” with much of her work exploring mental health disparities and the specific needs of those in African American communities.
It seems like having a positive sense of your racial identity can protect against the development of psychiatric disorders for some people. But for others, especially those of African or Asian descent, self-perceptions of race may be a risk factor for mental illness. And those of two or more races are actually at an increased risk for mental illness than other groups, with 25% of mixed-race individuals reporting a mental illness of some kind.
Dr. Haynes theorizes that this may be because bi-racial and multi-racial people “often experience racial invalidation,” and are subject to discrimination from both the public and from their own families. The poor treatment of those from mixed-race backgrounds is an indication of how our cultural identities can be helpful to certain groups and a hindrance to others.
How Can Minority Mental Health Awareness Be Raised?
Some of the best ways to become an ally for those around you include:
- Educating yourself and learning to listen. According to Dr. Haynes, one of the best ways to support BIPOC is “to learn to listen without judgment and without trying to solve the issue.”
- Respecting the viewpoints of those with different identities or cultural ties, even if you don’t agree with them. “Rather than spending time trying to offer other perspectives that counter their experience, respond with compassion and validate their feelings about the situation,” says Dr. Haynes.
- Asking direct, helpful questions. Dr. Haynes points out that asking, “How can I support you right now?” is more useful than simply asking how someone is doing.
Minority Mental Health Awareness Month might conjure up racial anxiety for some of us, and those who identify as white might feel like they have nothing to contribute. The truth is that we can all play an active and helpful role, even after MMHAM ends. Rather than ignoring race as part of our identity,
Dr. Haynes has noted the ways in which traditions and strong cultural ties can actually be useful for both treating mental illness and in research settings. She notes that as researchers and clinicians of color “build a more diverse mental health workforce, we are better able to reach and care for individuals who have not historically been represented in the mental health system.”