Are mental health professionals immune from institutional racism?

I was reading a recent and very disturbing article on PsychCentral this morning, entitled: “What’s In A Name? It May Determine If You Can Get Therapy” by Janice Wood. I was already familiar with the 2003 study that found those with black-sounding names were less likely to receive call-backs for job interviews than those with white-sounding names but I never dreamed that might be a factor in receiving mental health services! A very small scale (but still disheartening) study by the University of Vermont published in The Counseling Psychologist found that while callback rates for black-sounding and white-sounding names were the same, clinicians were more likely to tell those with black-sounding names that their case loads were full and that they would not be able to see them. They found “Allison” was invited to speak to the therapist 12% more often than “Lakisha.”

Institutional racism is the: “…societal patterns that have the net effect of imposing oppressive or otherwise negative conditions against identifiable groups on the basis of race or ethnicity.” –Tom Head*, CivilLiberties. About.com. Rather than the individual prejudice of one person, or in this case one clinician, institutional racism has to do with the prevailing ideas a society has about a race or ethnicity that lead to widespread negative ideas that can be so insidious we do not recognize them. I doubt that any one clinician says to themselves: “I won’t call Lakisha back.” or “I don’t want a black client” but they may have preconceived notions about the class of a potential client based on race. For example, they may assume that “Lakisha” has Medicaid or less attractive insurance that perhaps has a lower reimbursement rate than “Allison.” The may assume that “Lakisha” works a menial job with less flexibility to have daytime appointments that “Allison” might. While they might not realize that these stereotypes and assumptions are racist – they are. In fact, NAMI the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that African American males “are more likely to receive a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia when expressing symptoms related to mood disorders or PTSD.” In fact, African Americans as a whole are overdiagnosed with Schnizophrenia according to William B. Lawson, MD, PhD, professor and chair of psychiatry at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC. [1]

It is troubling that in 2016 that an individual in need of mental health services might suffer for their race. It is especially upsetting when you take into consideration that “according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.” [2] It is important, as professionals, that we strive to give the same quality of care to all those who seek our services. It is equally important for people of color who are seeking mental health services to advocate for themselves as they seek treatment for themselves. Learn more about self advocacy at NAMI.org. For more on Racial Disparities in Mental Health Treatment visit SocialWork at Simmons’ blog

* You will have to forgive me using an old friend as the source of my material, he also happens to be one of the most-read authors on civil liberties on the internet!

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