Mental health issues affect millions of families in the United States, and families struggling with the issue often have a hard time finding the right care to help tehir loved ones.

This month, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) focuses the spotlight on Minority Mental Health Awareness Month by talking about the discrepancies minorities dealing with mental health issues face and the complex web those who care about them must navigate to get help.

Minority Mental Health Awareness Month highlights the struggle of minorities living with a highly treatable, but often stigmatized illness. Mental health is just as important as physical health to achieve a balanced, healthy life, and the Office of Minority Health notes that mental illness impacts minorities at a greater rate than whites.

Minorities who live with mental illness often face barriers to care that, throughout the nation, can often prevent them from getting tratment of any kind. Depending on the community in which they live, access to high-quality mental health care can be hard to find. With the best teaching hospitals and clinics often located in big cities and psychiatrists and mental health counselors scattered throughout regions, gaining access to help is tough. According to NAMI, language barriers, cultural bias, and resources that don’t fill the need for care also get in the way of people getting essential treatment.

Even in the best situations—if someone has access to care and the insurance to pay for it—some minorities find a rigid cultural stigma against mental health issues. The stigma can be so complex and overwhelming, that it’s enough to keep someone from getting the help they need. If someone has the determination to find proper care, continuing with it can be a lonely struggle, so good support and follow through is especially necessary.

As a nurse, you can help in a couple of ways. With your direct, hands-on caregiving of patients, you can help assess if the patient might have mental health issues underlying their other health concerns. Sometimes, it’s obvious. Erratic or harmful behavior is an obvious warning sign, but more subtle signs can easily be brushed aside: a patient who comes in routinely for aches and pains but nothing is physically wrong, a new mom who mentions her struggle to care for her newborn, the young man who says he can’t sleep for days and then sleeps for three days in a row, or an elderly patient who feels a sense of hopelessness and loneliness after a health change.

All these smaller signs are red flags that something isn’t right and that your patient may be struggling with some form of mental illness. Because there are so many different types of mental illness and so much variation in severity, a front-line nurse can bring in the mental health team for an assessment. They can continue to advocate for the patients to understand the issues they are facing, whether it is lack of care, inability to access care, a cultural belief in mental illness as a personal flaw or weakness, or family that is not supportive or understanding. Communicate what a kind of positive impact mental health treatment can have on their lives and well being.

Showing compassion for patients and a cultural understanding of why they may be reluctant to be diagnosed with a mental illness can have a lasting, positive impact on your patients as well. Let them know they are not alone and that your team can help them find help. They may still refuse, but an open attitude might bring them back.

Understanding the challenges of mental health care with minority populations is important. These complex issues can prevent someone with very treatable forms of things like depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder from growing into a worse problem. Earlier treatment makes a big difference, helps people live better lives, and can prevent a mild form of illness from developing into a more complex and harder-to-treat condition.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is a freelance writer based in Bolton, Massachusetts.
Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

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