Campus Researchers Try New Ways to Close a Gap in Mental-Health Care

Undertreatment among nonwhite populations is common because of cost, lack of availability and stigma of seeking care.

As college campuses grapple with mental-health issues, researchers are trying new ways to bring treatment to students from ethnic-minority backgrounds, who experts say often don’t get the care they need and are more likely to have negative consequences due to their illness. Even highly educated minority students tend to seek care for mental-health issues less frequently than whites.

Academic researchers and foundations such as the Steve Fund are trying to improve the quality of mental-health care for ethnic-minority populations and their engagement with it. They want to bring treatment to the patient rather than waiting for a person to come to a traditional health setting, and they are using technology as an alternative to face-to-face treatment.

The vast majority of people with a diagnosable mental-health disorder don’t seek help, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Members of ethnic-minority groups, such as African-Americans, and immigrant populations are even less likely than whites to get care, especially high-quality services, experts say.

Undertreatment of ethnic minorities has long been a concern in the mental-health community, highlighted by the first-ever Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health issued in 1999. Common universal barriers such as cost, lack of availability and stigma against seeking mental-health care are compounded for some ethnic minorities by mistrust of the health-care system, racism and difficulties with language and communication,according to a supplemental report on culture, race and ethnicity issued with the Surgeon General’s report.

Most of these barriers are still a problem today, according to mental-health experts. Minorities are likely to wait longer with symptoms before seeking care compared with whites, and they are more likely to drop out of treatment, making retention an important goal for professionals. Generally, though, if they receive good care, outcomes are similar for ethnic minorities and whites, experts say.

Research suggests that minorities often prefer counselling or talk therapy to medication yet they often don’t have the opportunity because of limited service options. If offered medication and willing to try it, however, they respond as well as whites, says Jodi Gonzalez Arnold, a psychologist and professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Center in San Antonio, who has studied the issue.