(Photo:Flickr/Seattle Municipal Archives)

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, and the American Counseling Association is urging its members to use this time to think about the racial and cultural disparities that are still evident in the mental health treatment system in our nation.

The U.S. House of Representatives proclaimed July to be Minority Mental Health Awareness Month in 2008 after prompting from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The goal throughout this month is to improve access to mental health treatment and services through increased public awareness

“[National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month] is an important move in the right direction to highlight the mental health concerns among culturally and socially marginalized individuals in the U.S.,” says Cirecie West-Olatunji, an associate professor of counselor education at the University of Florida and president-elect of ACA. “Despite continual emphasis on the need to increase cultural competence among clinicians and increased awareness of the importance of prevention and early detection of mental health concerns, culturally diverse adults continue to experience disproportionate rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and traumatic stress. And children and adolescents are disproportionately identified as having behavior and emotional disorders.”

According to the Commonwealth Fund 2001 Health Care Quality Survey, one in three Hispanics and one in four Asian Americans reported having problems communicating with their doctors. Additionally, 15 percent of African Americans, 13 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of Asian Americans said there had been a time in their lives when they felt they would have received better care if they had been of a different race or ethnicity.

Mental health-focused organizations such as ACA can play a greater role in reducing disproportionality among marginalized groups of individuals, says West-Olatunji, who is also the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development’s representative to the ACA Governing Council.

She believes that mental health care for minorities has improved in certain respects, but not all. “Some areas of mental health concerns have gotten better, while others have become more of a concern,” West-Olatunji says. “For instance, it has been reported that teen pregnancy and teen smoking rates [among minorities]have decreased, while male suicides, chronic stress due to systemic oppression and acculturation issues, and HIV/AIDS cases in some sectors [of the minority community] have increased.”

However, West-Olatunji says, the counseling profession is helping to make a lot of positive strides. “Scholars in the discipline of counseling are increasing their investigation and dissemination of their findings in these areas,” West-Olatunji says. “Thus, we are contributing to solutions in these areas.”

West-Olatunji says there are measures that ACA members can take to be proactive in their communities all year long and improve the mental health of America’s minority communities.

“The most important step that ACA members can take to aid in improving the mental health of culturally diverse individuals, families and communities is to become more knowledgeable about the eco-systemic issues that marginalized individuals face that impact their psychological and emotional wellbeing,” West-Olatunji says. “For many of us, that means going beyond the required multicultural counseling course that is typically offered within our counseling curricula. We need to engage in outreach projects, take advanced coursework or extended professional development opportunities, and participate in immersion programs led by culturally competent clinical supervisors. ACA members can also become more active in those divisions and interest networks that focus on the concerns of culturally and socially marginalized individuals. Finally, we can all increase our knowledge by accessing resources in print, online and in communities.”

For more information about Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, visit NAMI’s website.

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.