Untreated mental illness leads to worse outcomes for minorities

Racial and ethnic minorities with untreated mental illnesses are more likely to have experienced poverty, have been unemployed, and/or experienced incarceration during the past year, according to a paper published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. The paper’s  authors—led by Lonnie R. Snowden, UC Berkeley School of Public Health professor of health policy and management—found that African Americans with untreated mental illness were particularly vulnerable compared to white, Native American, and Latino populations.

Using data from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, they measured the health status and community functioning of different ethnic groups using their likelihood of experiencing unemployment, poverty, and incarceration as a proxy.

The findings concluded that African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos with untreated mental illness were more likely  to be living in poverty, incarcerated, and/or self-reporting to be in “fair” or “poor” health. Because of this, members of these minority groups are vulnerable to facing “double jeopardy,” or being stigmatized for both their mental illness and racial identity and experiencing greater challenges than others with mental health illnesses.

“Ethnic minority people with mental illness are particularly likely to be untreated, and particularly vulnerable to adversity in health and community functioning,” said Lonnie R. Snowden. “Their risk of adversity from mental illness might be compounded by being members of ethnic minority groups.”

Susceptibility to poverty, unemployment, incarceration, and other negative indicators  in the prior year varied across groups. Latinos with mild and severe mental illnesses self-reported disproportionately high rates of poverty and poor health, a disparity researchers  attributed to a lack of mental health resources for undocumented immigrants multiplied by fears of displacement. African Americans were at greater risk of adversity overall, however, suggesting that they “should be special targets for outreach for health and social services,” Snowden said.

This variance in vulnerability to employment, arrest, and happiness among racial groups indicate that programs need to be community-specific by addressing issues such as living conditions, immigration status, English language proficiency, and other unique cultural barriers. Moreover, the study recommends community health workers and clinics work to reduce racial and mental health stigma to combat this double jeopardy, or two-folded discrimination.

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