Guest opinion: Addressing racial disparity in mental health and healthcare

While protests continue to address issues of racial disparity throughout the United States, another important issue has received attention through Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Mental Health Awareness Month in July.

BIPOC mental health shouldn’t be relegated to one month of consideration. As our country explores the longstanding impact of racism and bigotry, it’s also important that we vigorously explore the mental health needs of traditionally underserved and underrepresented populations.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reports that racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. are less likely to have access to mental health services, less likely to use community mental health services, more likely to use emergency departments, and more likely to receive lower-quality care. Poor mental health care access and quality of care contribute to poor mental health outcomes, including suicide, among racial and ethnic minority populations.

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Traumatic events are often considered to be sexual assault, exposure to violence or war, accidents and natural disasters. But trauma can also be carried through generations from historical adversities, violence and oppression that have a deep impact on the way victims live, speak and think and often translate into socioeconomic disparities and mental health concerns.

Mental Health America, a community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting the overall mental health of all, issued a position statement on healthcare reform. “Mental Health America (MHA) believes that all individuals and families should have access to mental health services that are responsive to their needs. This requires minimizing barriers, providing multiple referral and service pathways, redesigning services that are more culturally and linguistically competent and evidence-based, and expanding access in rural and inner-city areas to community-based systems of mental health and substance use services and supports that are integrated with medical care.”

This is what Healthcare Network is about. Since 1977 when it was founded as a nonprofit to tackle the medical issues of migrant farm workers, the rural poor and  citizens in Collier County, Healthcare Network has welcomed all patients – insured or uninsured – providing the same high-quality standard of care.  This is possible because Healthcare Network offers a Sliding Fee Program that reduces costs to underinsured and uninsured patients based on their income and family size.

Healthcare Network’s patient population of approximately 50,000 individuals  annually is 63% minority. In addressing healthcare disparities by providing quality care to everyone regardless of income or insurance status, in 2019 we provided $13.9 million in uncompensated care.

Healthcare Network provides cutting-edge, best-of-class integrated primary care addressing the whole person — both body and mind. This integrated care model blends primary care and mental health into one setting, allowing patients to experience a true team-based approach to healthcare. The model is highly effective because patients often seek medical care for physical symptoms that are related to or caused by behavioral issues. In addition, co-locating services reduces the stigma many patients feel when seeking behavioral health services in a traditional setting.

As I watch the protests and nationwide discussions in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, I’m encouraged by increased support of Black-owned and minority-owned businesses. In similar fashion, it is increasingly important that the community support nonprofit organizations already in place and working to address healthcare disparities to BIPOC communities.

Haris Domond is a certified mental health counselor. His nonprofit work includes serving on boards dedicated to helping his community, including Healthcare Network, Healthcare Network Foundation, Haitian Community Alliance, Rotary Naples Bay, South Florida Parent Center and Naples Church of Christ.

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