America’s racial and ethnic minority groups face major disparities when it comes to accessing quality mental health services, according to a recent report by the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. David Satcher.

The study, a supplement to the 1999 first-ever Surgeon General’s report on mental health, connects the ethnic and racial-based disparities in mental health care to a number of factors, including cultural bias, lack of health insurance, language differences and a mistrust of health care professionals by minorities. According to Satcher, the current health care system has failed to address these long-standing inequities. The report calls for the development of culturally relevant health care in order to repair the current system.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Surgeon General’s office compiled the supplemental report. It found that racial and ethnic minority groups are less likely to receive quality mental health services than the majority population, and as a result, a disproportionately high number of minorities are suffering from untreated or inadequately treated mental health problems and mental illnesses.

“While mental disorders may touch all Americans either directly or indirectly, all do not have equal access to treatment and services,” Satcher says. “The failure to address these inequalities is being played out in human and economic terms–on our streets, in homeless shelters, public health institutions, prisons and jails.”

The solution, according to Satcher, is to increase the research on cross-cultural skills, communication and cultural-specific knowledge–such as the role religion and spirituality plays in ethnic cultures and in mental health.

“This supplement carries with it a call to the people of the U.S. to understand and appreciate our many cultures and their impact on the mental health of all Americans,” Satcher states. “The main message of this supplement–that culture counts–should echo through the corridors and communities of this nation.”

The report warns that if these disparities persist, in a time when ethnic and racial minority populations are growing rapidly, the consequences could be severe.

“Mental health is fundamental to overall health and productivity,” the executive summary says. “It is the basis for successful contributions to family, community and society…Left untreated, mental illness can result in disability and despair for families, schools, communities and the workplace.”

Photo by Keoni Cabral

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