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Statewide report shines light on mental health disparities

Shae Collins | 7/18/2012, 5 p.m.

The African American Health Institute of San Bernardino County, a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to build awareness of health disparities, as well as decrease premature deaths and disabilities among ethnic populations, recently released its statewide African American mental health report entitled, "We Ain't Crazy! Just Coping With a Crazy System: Pathways into the Black Population for Eliminating Mental Health Disparities."

The report was distributed and discussed at a town hall meeting held as a part of the National Black Mental Health Worker's Conference recently held at the Westin Hotel LAX.

The report was put together through the African American Health Institutes' California Reducing Disparities Project (CRDP), and funded by the Mental Health Services Act (Prop. 63). The project received a $411,052 two-year contract to complete the research from March 1, 2009, to Feb. 29, 2012 .

The report contains community strategies, models, and other resources and approaches for practitioners, program planners, and policymakers in order to address mental health needs and reduce disparities in the African American community. It also includes the most current disparity data as well as information about mental and behavioral health prevention and early intervention affecting people of African ancestry in California.

The information was obtained from focus groups, surveys, interviews, small group meetings and public forums, which altogether included a total of 260 people. Participants in the project were residents of the 14 counties where 92 percent of the Black population lives.

During the town hall meeting, Nicelma King, Ph.D., an editor of the report, presented the highlights of discussions with project participants. King said those surveyed discussed what they considered good and poor mental health, their attitudes about medication, and how available they feel treatment is. Participants identified matters including a sound moral foundation, functioning in society, and being able to cope with life challenges as components of good mental health and said that poverty, hopelessness, misunderstanding of cultural style, and identity crises were among components of poor mental health.

Many participants said that within the Black community mental health is often not talked about, ignored, and viewed as a personal weakness. They also mentioned that often times it can be difficult to access treatment for a mental health condition.

In addition to information from project participants, CRDP used public data from the California Health Interview Survey, which found that in 2007 African Americans were 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with serious psychological problems and 50 percent more likely to report symptoms of depressive episodes. Analyzing this information along with the perspectives of participants in the project, CRDP suggested that the mental health system has provided problematic treatment to people of African descent. Participants in CRDP reported inappropriate and inaccurate diagnoses, disproportionate findings of severe mental illness and inadequate coordination of services.

In addition, the report identifies community practices that promote good mental health. These include supportive family involvement, rites of passage programs and spiritual guidance. The report also includes a list of priority actions communities can take to promote mental health.

They include working with the justice system to distinguish between the need for mental care versus incarceration; creating mobile centers that provide access to mental health workers and medication, and providing more jobs for survivors of mental illnesses.