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BIPOC Mental Health Awareness: Understanding Mental Health Disparities Across Different Communities

The purpose of BIPOC Mental Health Awareness month is to highlight disparities among the communities that have faced discrimination, injustice and systemic inequalities - all which have profound effects on mental health. Stigma around mental health still exists in many communities, often leading people not to seek professional help. Within BIPOC communities specifically, cultural factors and historical trauma can further complicate discussions around mental health. Breaking these stigmas requires open dialogue, cultural sensitivities, and ongoing community support.

How Identity and Culture Impact Mental Health

Each person’s mental health is their own unique journey. Race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs can all play a role in how mental health is understood. Learning about how cultural and identity factors affect mental health is the first step to addressing inequality and ensuring everyone has access to mental health care.

Black Communities

More than 41 million people in the U.S. identify as Black or African American, making up roughly 12 percent of the population. Black communities have endured years of oppression, violence, and dehumanization during slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, and systemic racism at both the individual and institutional levels. The experience of being the target of racism and discrimination is a trauma that elevates levels of stress hormones in the body. Repeated exposure to the trauma and stress of racism has a lasting negative effect on both mental and physical health.

Although Black and African American people make up 13 percent of the general U.S. population, they comprise nearly 40 percent of the prison population. Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans. Black people living with mental health conditions, particularly schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, and other psychoses, are more likely to be incarcerated than people of other races.

Black Americans are more likely to lack medical insurance compared to white people. Because of a dearth of Black or African American healthcare providers, Black individuals face challenges in finding culturally competent care.

In some communities today, there still might be a stigma that attaches mental health issues with weakness. The stigma is also fueled by the mistrust that Black people have in the health system because of harm. This harm includes horrific medical experiments on enslaved people, the forced sterilizations of Black women, and the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, which withheld treatment from hundreds of Black men for decades to let doctors track the course of the disease. Most Black Americans look to their clergy or members of the church for support connected to their spirituality.

Hispanic/Latino Communities

Latino communities in the U.S. are very diverse, encompassing people from multiple different nations around the world. People hailing from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central America and South America, while distinct and unique, are united by shared cultural connections. In addition to speaking Spanish, large portions of this community share religious affiliations, strong family bonds, and indigenous ancestry.

Language barriers are one gap that keeps this group from finding adequate healthcare. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, 5.5 percent of providers reported being able to administer care in Spanish. Yet, the Latino population makes up close to 18% of the population here in the U.S. Many immigrants who arrive in the U.S. will not seek medical care for fears of deportation. Many of these immigrants come into the country with mental health issues already occurring: Having to leave one’s country, home, family, or friends, because of violence or other socio political conflicts can have a negative effect on one’s mental health. The migration process might also be traumatic, leading to a heightened risk of depression or PTSD. Like other communities that face mental health stigma, many people choose to keep their issue private in fear or being labeled.

Asian/Pacific Islanders Communities

Asian American and Pacific Islander communities (often abbreviated as AAPI) encompass a wide range of diverse identities and nationalities. More than 19 million Asian Americans trace their roots to 20-plus countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, each with distinct histories, cultures, languages, and other cultural characteristics. People who identify as Asian American might trace their origins to any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Pacific Islanders trace their roots to the original peoples of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. This includes the islands of Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Guam, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. These islands are just a few among the many that make up Oceania, a vast region in the Pacific Ocean that encompasses thousands of islands, each with its own unique identity and heritage.

Each of these communities faces different mental health challenges than the other. Despite the discrimination and historical trauma many AAPI individuals face, ethnic and community identity is considered a protective factor. Studies have reported a strong sense of ethnic identity is linked to a lower risk of suicide and greater resiliency when confronted with racial discrimination.

Similar to the Hispanic communities, language can be a big barrier. Data shows that 32.6% of people in this community are not fluent in English. We also see that data shows healthcare providers also lack in the ability to speak these languages.

Asian Americans also face harassment and stereotypes rooted in racism, such as the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype, which labels them as outsiders who will never be truly American. Asian Americans also feel external and familial pressure to conform to the myth of the “model minority:” the idea that Asian Americans are all successful and well-adjusted because they are quiet, submissive, and hard-working. This stereotype was manufactured during the civil rights movement to weaponize Asian Americans against Black Americans and contributes to the stigma against seeking mental healthcare. In addition to trauma and untrue stereotypes, AAPI’s face racial discrimination, harassment and violence.

Indigenous and Native Communities

Indigenous, or Native, people who lived in what we now call the United States prior to European colonization currently make up about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population. Native peoples’ mental well-being is closely tied to their deep connection to nature and to their community. Therefore, the violence of colonization and displacement was and continues to be especially traumatic for native communities.

Beliefs around mental health conditions and the causes vary widely among native people. In general, native culture recognizes an overlap between the physical and psychological, oftentimes not aligned with current U.S medical criteria. Natives are likely to look to spiritual or traditional healers for help with depression or other mental health issues. Indigenous peoples have experienced violence, dehumanization, oppression, and genocide for years. This historical trauma still affects Indigenous peoples today. Substance abuse is the leading concern of mental health issues in the native communities. In a 2018 survey, 1 in 5 Native American young adults (aged 18-25 years) has a substance use disorder.

Multiracial Identities

Roughly 10 percent of the population, or 33.8 million people, in the U.S. identify as multiracial, according to the U.S. Census. While a sense of belonging and cultural identity is a protective factor for many single-race individuals, people who identify as biracial or multiracial may not feel the same sense of acceptance as their single-race counterparts. Because they don’t fit neatly into any one group, people with a multiracial background often find themselves in between two (or more) cultural worlds.

Similar to monoracial identities, bi/multiracial people’s mental health is negatively affected by the discrimination and racism they face. In addition to traditional discrimination, bi/multiracial people can be excluded from their own racial or cultural group because of their mixed-race status.

Ways to Participate in BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month:

● Work with community organizations, leaders, and mental health professionals to organize events and activities that promote connection and cultural expression

● Advocate for creating safer spaces, such as community centers, spiritual gathering places, or educational facilities, where people can feel comfortable talking about their mental health challenges

● Connect with mental health professionals and community resources for support