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July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month

Cultural competency is key to improving wellness

The prevalence of mental disorders among people in most ethnic minority groups is similar to rates for Caucasians (about 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in any given year). Minorities, however, are more likely to experience racism, discrimination, violence and poverty, which may make their mental illnesses worse or create barriers to treatment.

That's according to a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General report, Mental Health: Culture, Race and Ethnicity It found that compared to the general population, racial and ethnic minorities had less access to mental health services and were more likely receive poor quality care.

More than a decade later, those disparities still exist. However, progress has been made in learning about and developing more culturally appropriate services.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a lack of cultural competence is often responsible for people of color not seeking mental health services in the formal system, not being able to access treatment, dropping out of care, being misdiagnosed or seeking care only when their illness is at an advanced stage.

Cultural competence is the ability to effectively relate to individuals from various groups and backgrounds.  The Office of Minority Health (OMH) identifies cultural competency as a critical component in improving mental health services for minorities.

"Quite simply, healthcare services that are respectful of and responsive to the health beliefs, practices and cultural and linguistic needs of diverse patients can help bring about positive health outcomes," states the OMH website.

According to the agency, culture and language may influence:

  • Health, healing, and wellness belief systems.
  • How illness, disease, and their causes are perceived.
  • The behaviors of patients who are seeking healthcare and their attitudes toward healthcare providers.
  • Delivery of services by the healthcare provider who looks at the world through his or her own limited set of values, which can compromise access for patients from other cultures.

Mental health treatment can work for anyone from any background. For more information on mental health services in your community, contact the NAMI Helpline at (800) 950-6264, Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST, or email

For more information on National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month in July, visit NAMI's Multicultural Action Center.

To download a National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month poster, click here.