Health disparities are preventable and disproportionate health conditions and inequalities that exist among all ages in a certain population. While many health disparities are commonly recognized as physical conditions like heart disease or breast cancer, mental health is also a prevalent health disparity for some populations.
COVID-19: Its Impact on Mental Health and the Black Community
Mental health is important to address and take care of, especially during COVID-19 and as we enter the post-pandemic era. When human interaction has been replaced with isolation and social distancing for over a year, new mental health conditions naturally surfaced for many Americans as a result. And for those with existing mental health conditions, COVID-19 potentially increased those conditions.
Even before COVID-19, mental health is pervasive across many populations because there is a social stigma associated with mental illness and seeking care. When a health condition has a social stigma, populations are less likely to seek or receive the care that they need. Just like putting off physical care like preventive heart screenings, delaying mental health care can largely impact one’s wellbeing.
For example, only one in three Black Americans who need mental health care receive it. Black Americans have a higher rate of contracting COVID-19 for a variety of factors. One reason is those with mental health conditions are more likely to get COVID-19, which is considered a health disparity.
It’s important to understand that while mental health impacts all populations to a certain degree, addressing and treating mental health is widely under addressed among Black Americans. The first step to addressing mental health disparities starts with education.
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Mental Health in the Black Community
While mental health conditions exist among all populations to varying degrees, mental health disparities exist in the Black community for a few reasons:
1. Social determinants of health
Social determinants of health are factors like biology and genetics, individual behavior, social environment, physical environment, and health services, that contribute to an individual’s overall health outcome. These factors can largely impact mental health. For example, if an individual is living in poverty or facing socioeconomic issues, the individual may experience stress, anxiety, or depression.
2. Attitudes towards health care and seeking care
Black Americans have a history of distrust in health care systems dating all the way back to slavery. Historical events like the Tuskegee experiments have also largely impacted their attitudes and trust towards health care. Because of their overall distrust, Black Americans are less likely to seek health care. If physical and mental health is left untreated, untreated health issues can largely impact an individual’s life. For example, if mental health is left untreated, it can escalate the individual’s mental health condition and even cause physical health problems like heart disease. Black Americans are already 20 times more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease than other populations.
3. Health care access
While Black Americans are less likely to receive health care, or seek treatment for mental health conditions, they often have lower access to educational, social, and economic resources than other communities. These access gaps can affect the quality of mental health care they receive.
4. Unconscious bias
Unconscious bias is social stereotyping people unintentionally form about groups of people that can affect how they perceive and interact with them. Unconscious bias exists in medicine and in the community, and can affect Black Americans’ overall experience in health care. It can also affect diagnosis and treatment because health professionals who display biases may not even be conscious of them, yet this largely impacts how medical professionals treat their patients. If a Black American or anyone has a negative health care experience, they naturally are less likely to continue receiving care or follow up care.
5. Lack of diverse mental health providers
Sometimes diverse populations like Black Americans do not have positive experiences in health care due to the lack of diversity among health care professionals. For example, only 4% of psychologists in the United States are Black Americans. When there is cultural competence among providers, providers are more likely to relate well to diverse populations.
What Can Be Done
While there are substantial efforts to address health disparities, the first step to prevent health disparities is education. It’s important to understand that addressing and preventing health disparities is a collective effort and goes beyond health care settings. Here are a few things that can be done:
- Develop partnerships between community leaders, government agencies, educators, and health care providers to increase mental health access and services to diverse and minority populations
- Increase diversity within mental health care
- Incorporate diversity and cultural training into mental health care training curriculum
- Build trust with the Black community to instill positive perceptions of health care and services
- Advocate for state funding on mental health services for minority populations
What UPMC is Doing to Address Health Disparities
Health disparities are preventable and UPMC is committed to driving health education and programming, partnering with our community, and training health care providers to ensure that all individuals and families have the opportunity to live healthier lifestyles. Learn more about health disparities and what UPMC is doing to instill change in medicine and the community.
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Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations in central and western Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals.