Stigma remains a top barrier to treatment for mental illness among minority groups, said panelists during a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by Research!America, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA) and the National Medical Association on June 13, 2018. Panelists stressed the importance of stakeholder collaboration, increased minority representation in health care fields and patient advocacy to help overcome mental health disparities. Andrew Sperling, director of legislative and policy advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, moderated the discussion.
Mental illness is generally considered a taboo subject in the Latino community because of the stigma attached to it, noted Dr. Elena Rios, president and CEO, NHMA. Meaningful conversations about mental health and mentoring programs to encourage young students of color, as early as middle school, to pursue careers in science, medicine and public health are essential, she said. “[Latinos] can become a doctor or a nurse or a dentist, they can become a psychiatrist or psychologist.”
For young people of color whose experiences with discrimination can exacerbate underlying mental illness, connecting with advocates and health professionals who look like them can make a difference in whether they seek help, said Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, associate professor, Department of Psychiatry, Georgetown University Medical Center. And “people who tell their stories [about mental illness] is key to overcoming stigma,” she said.
Congressman Raul Ruiz (D-CA-36), a medical doctor, said health researchers should work alongside patients and providers to educate the public and lawmakers about mental health policy. The effect research has on people’s lives, not where or whether it is published, should be the gold standard for success, he said. “Together and only together are we going to address disparities.”
“The research is quite clear that people with serious mental illness will get sick and die 10 to 20 years younger than their same aged peers, and if those people are of color, African-American or Latino, the average is even worse,” said Dr. Patrick Corrigan, distinguished professor of psychology, Illinois Institute of Technology. Patient navigators, individuals who themselves have experienced mental illness, guide other sufferers through the often-complex healthcare system, he noted. Marilyn Perez-Aviles, a patient navigator and research assistant at Illinois Institute of Technology, recounted her own personal struggle with depression and stigma, and said patient navigating “really engages the community and helps build trust.”
Advocating for patients is “an opportunity for me to positively reflect on my journey,” said Sonya Ballentine, a project manager at the Illinois Institute of Technology College of Psychology and a survivor of substance use disorder. “Patient advocacy allows people to bond and gives people a sense of safety and security.”