The University Network

Disparities In Mental Health Services Leave Students Of Color With Less Care

Among college students with clinically significant mental health problems, significantly less number of students of color received treatment than those of white students, a new study has found.

The paper is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Students are aching inside

Every year, the number of students in need of mental health assistance continues to rise.

According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s 2017 report, from 2016 to 2017, nearly 53 percent of college students said they received mental health services and around 34 percent of them had seriously considered suicide.

The same report ranked anxiety and depression as the top two mental health problems among college students.

But even within this already grim reality, students of color are receiving less of the care that every struggling student should receive.  

The findings are alarming because racial disparities in mental health services may be linked not just to disparities in degree completion, but also to future personal and economic well-being.

“Understanding and addressing the mental health needs of racially diverse students is essential to supporting their success and creating equity in other dimensions, including persistence and retention,” Sarah Lipson, an assistant professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) and the study’s lead researcher, said in a statement.

The study

The research team used data from 43,375 undergraduate and graduate students at 60 institutions that participated in the survey-based Healthy Minds Study from 2012 to 2015.

The participants included 13,412 students of color, who self-identified as African American, Latinx, Asian/Asian American, Arab/Arab American, or multiracial.

Because the largest proportion of international students in the sample were Asian, the team also looked separately at international Asian students and Asian American students.

The findings

Overall, 42 percent of students met criteria for a mental health problem, with prevalence ranging from 40 percent among African American students to 53 percent for Arab/Arab American students.

While 48 percent of white students with a mental health problem had received a diagnosis, only 21 percent of African American students with a mental health problem had received a diagnosis.

Additionally, white students had both the highest prevalence of receiving treatment and awareness of mental health resources on campus at 46 percent and 70 percent, respectively.

Asian American students had the second lowest prevalence of treatment at 23 percent and international students had the lowest at 19 percent.

Asian students also had both the least perceived need for mental health treatment, with only 47 percent of students who met criteria for a mental health problem believing they needed help, and the most stigma about mental health, at 23 percent of Asian American students and 35 percent of international Asian students.

African American students showed the least stigma about mental health at 6 percent.

Arab/Arab American students were the least aware of campus resources at only 52 percent.

Disparities continue into adulthood

Lipson noted that college populations have a special significance for general mental health policy, because nearly 75 percent of mental illnesses first appear by the time someone is in their mid-20s.

Not surprisingly, white dominance in mental health services continues even among the general adult population.  

According to American Psychiatric Association, in 2015, among adults with any mental illness, 48 percent of whites received mental health services, compared with only 31 percent of African Americans and Hispanics and 22 percent of Asians.

If not fixed early on in college years, the disparities will only get wider in the real world.

Experts advise colleges should provide a racially diverse and safe environment in their mental health clinics so that students of all races can feel represented when speaking about their most inner struggles with their counselors.

Dartmouth university was ranked as having the most racially diverse mental healthcare clinical staff, according to a study published in the Journal of Undergraduate Ethnic Minority Psychology.

The next step

For deeper analysis of the problem, the research team plans to launch a new component of the Healthy Minds Study in Fall 2018, partnering with students and advocacy organizations, including Active Minds and The Steve Fund.

“The new survey component measures issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion, discrimination, sense of belonging, identity formation, and a range of related topics that we know affect and are affected by mental health,” Lipson said in a statement.

“My hope as a researcher is to collect and disseminate these data in a way that can directly inform practice and policy to reduce the glaring mental health disparities revealed in this paper.”

Hyeyeun Jeon is from South Korea and a recent graduate from Carnegie Mellon University with a double major in Professional Writing and International Relations. She is passionate about non-fiction storytelling. She loves reading, watching, writing and producing stories about extraordinary lives of everyday people.