How to Better Serve the Underserved: Racial and Ethnic Groups

First in a  Series

Since the beginning of 2020, we’ve seen the unemployment rate reach a staggering 14.8%. The resulting economic strain hasn’t just affected unemployment – it’s crept across almost every facet of our lives, including our access to healthcare. Many of the individuals experiencing these challenges are people of color and ethnic minorities. And while this inequality has always existed, the pandemic has made it even more visible.  

Members of racial and ethnic minority groups within the United States experience unprecedented barriers to mental and behavioral healthcare that are simply hiding in plain sight, unreported and unassessed. If these barriers are not constructively addressed, they will continue to affect the care these populations receive, leading to an endless cycle of ineffective and sub-par clinical outcomes.

It’s imperative that behavioral health clinicians understand the unique needs of this underserved population, so access to treatment is more effective and equitable for everyone.  

Challenges Faced by Racial and Ethnic Groups

Race and ethnicity are two different ways to describe our social identity, based on either a shared set of physical characteristics (race) or a cultural identification (ethnicity). For example, Black individuals can identify as unique ethnicities, such as African American, Somalian, or Bahamian.

Both race and ethnicity affect many aspects of behavioral and mental health. Helping to equalize care starts with understanding the obstacles that people of color face when accessing these services. Being uninsured or underinsured is a tremendous barrier to care that disproportionately affects members of diverse racial and ethnic groups. A lack of diversity and cultural understanding among providers can also disincentivize members of these communities to seek care.

In many racial and ethinc communities, there’s a historic distrust of the healthcare system, stemming from atrocities like the Tuskegee study, where the bodies of people of color were used as subjects for abusive and inhumane medical studies. Combine that with the stigma associated with mental health treatment that’s prevalent in many of these communities, and it’s easy to understand why many diverse individuals find it challenging to obtain effective treatment for behavioral health disorders.

Although these trends have been around for years, recent studies have started to show the specifics of these inequalities, including:


How to Improve Care for Racial and Ethnic Groups

The first step to dealing with inequity in behavioral healthcare is to develop a greater awareness of the problem. Clinicians can take action within their own practices to improve the care they offer, especially those clients who are historically underserved. Here are some positive steps your practice can take to improve outcomes for every client:

Educate yourself: One of the best ways to ensure better outcomes for every client is to educate yourself on the cultural and sociological challenges that affect the diverse communities you serve. By developing a deeper understanding of their challenges and needs, clinicians can design more appropriate and effective treatment plans for individuals within these groups. 55 Mental Health Resources for People of Color provides a wealth of information about organizations, directories, podcasts, and educational resources to help you get started.

Explore teletherapy: Teletherapy can open up behavioral health care to a wider segment of your community. It makes it easier and less intimidating for clients to seek treatment, and can help close the gap in care. It also allows individuals without reliable access to transportation–or those who live in remote areas–access to mental health and substance use services who might otherwise go untreated.

Reach out to local communities: It isn’t enough to develop programs that are better suited to diverse clients. Clinicians must foster positive relationships with members of their local community to ensure their resources reach the widest audience possible. Partnerships with local faith groups, charities, and other community organizations can help ensure this information reaches those who need it most.

Improve data collection with an EHR: By improving systematic data collection through a behavioral health EHR, clinicians can ensure they have the relevant data they need to tailor their care to each client. This data can also be aggregated and used to identify any disparities that affect your practice, making it easier to take action. Robust reporting and dashboards are “must haves” to be successful with data collection that can lead to more positive and meaningful changes in the lives of your clients.

Additional Resources

Looking for more information about how to better serve the underserved racial and ethnic groups in your community? You can find additional resources here:

SAMHSA Behavioral Health Equity

American Psychological Association Office of Ethnic and Minority Affairs

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health

Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective  

Asian American Psychological Association

Latinx Therapy  

The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation

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