Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Mental Health Care for Children and Young Adults: A National Study

One in five Americans is estimated to have a mental health condition at any given time. But getting treatment remains difficult — and it’s worse for children, especially those who identify as black or Hispanic.

That’s the major finding in research published in the International Journal of Health Services. The study examines how often young adults and children were able to get needed mental health services, based on whether they were black, Hispanic or white. Using a nationally representative sample of federally collected survey data compiled between 2006 and 2012, researchers sought to determine how often people reported poor mental health and either saw a specialist or had a general practitioner bill for mental health services.

Young people in general aren’t likely to see mental health specialists. But the numbers fell further when racial and ethnic backgrounds were factored in. About 5.7 percent of white children and young adults were likely to see a mental health specialist in a given year, compared with about 2.3 percent for black or Hispanic young people.

Put another way: Even when controlling for someone’s mental health status, insurance and income, black and Hispanic children saw someone for treatment far less often than did their white counterparts — about 130 fewer visits per thousand subjects. Black young adults visited a mental health specialist about 280 fewer visits per thousand; Hispanics had 244 fewer visits per thousand.

But the data indicate that mental illness incidence rates are generally consistent across racial groups, according to the study. Of adults between the ages of 18 and 34, between 4 and 5 percent indicated having fair or poor mental health, regardless of racial background. For children, white and black subjects were reported to need care at about the same rate — between 11 percent and 12 percent — compared with about 7 percent of Hispanic children.

The paper outlines a few possible reasons for this disconnect. Different communities may attach greater stigma about mental health care, or they may place less trust in the doctors available. Plus, there is a shortage of child psychiatrists across the country, and black and Hispanic families often live in the most underserved areas.
One of the study’s clear messages, argued Woolhandler, is that racial minorities received markedly less care — regardless of socioeconomic or health status. The gap suggests a targeted intervention is needed.

Population of focus: Children and young adults

Links to resource:

Date: 2016

Journal: International Journal of Health Services