Mental Health: Challenges and Opportunities

Discrimination and historical trauma have shaped the mental health of our BIPOC and AAPI communities and the treatment they receive. How can we do better?

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Racism, discrimination and historical trauma have played major roles in the mental health of our BIPOC (Black Indigenous People Of Color) and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and the treatment they receive. According to Dr. Brenda Wade, clinical psychologist, “Systemic racism permeates every layer of society, education, health and mental health—not just police departments and fire departments.”

Why do these barriers persist, and what can we do to improve AAPI and BIPOC mental health supports?

Part one of this two-part series shares data and observations regarding the current state of mental health challenges and supports for BIPOC and AAPI.

The Current Situation

“Discrimination, race-based stress and trauma, structural oppression all contribute to the genesis and continuation of racial mental health disparities,” explains Brianna A. Baker, second-year doctoral student in counseling psychology. “Exposure to racism is correlated with increased stress levels (Peters, 2006), accelerated aging (Carter et al., 2019; Gee et al., 2019), and a variety of other mental health disparities in BIPOC populations (Jackson et al.,2010; Miranda et al., 2008).”

Elected officials and all other systems reflect underlying—often unconscious—racism that the research shows creates devastating outcomes for BIPOC,” Wade adds.

Did You Know?

  • Mental Health America, reports that 17% of Black people and 23% of Native Americans live with a mental health condition
  • According to the national Alliance on Mental Illness, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have the lowest help-seeking rate of any racial/ethnic group:
    • Only 23% of AAPI adults with a mental health condition receive treatment.
    • Researchers have learned this is often due to:
      • Cultural shame
      • Language/cultural relevance barriers in current mental health services options
  • Suicide was the leading cause of death for AAPIs ages 15 to 24 in 2019. (CDC)
  • Mental health issues are on the rise for AAPI/Native Hawaiian young adults. (SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health)
  • Major depressive episodes increased from 10% to 14% in AAPI youth ages 12 to 17, 8.9% to 10% in young adults 18 to 25, and 3.2% to 5% in the 26-to-49 age range between 2015 and 2018.
  • Research indicates that BIPOC are:
    • Less likely to seek mental health care
    • More likely to experience mental health provider bias
    • Less likely to have access to mental health services
    • More likely to receive poor quality of care
    • More likely to end services early

See also: Five Things Employers Need to Know About Mental Health

The Caveats

Available data tracking of AAPI and BIPOC mental health can be misleading for the following reasons:

  • Due to prejudice and discrimination around mental health conditions and suicide, suicide deaths or mental health challenges are most likely underreported in most BIPOC and AAPI communities.
  • Available data reported does not reflect the great variability that exists within subcultures of BIPOC and AAPI groups.
  • Current statistics do not reflect the rise in anti-Asian hate and its impact on AAPI mental health.

Other Obstacles to Unbiased Treatment and Support

  • Language and cultural barriers
  • Dismissing, denying or neglecting symptoms due to mental health bias in many Asian cultures
  • The erroneous model minority myth that AAPI communities are doing well and don’t need any services or attention
  • BIPOC self-devaluation, one of the saddest byproducts of racism, which causes redirection of anger at the system toward “myself and those who look like me”
  • Coping by repressing emotions such as sadness, grief, shame, and loneliness—a necessary strategy to survive racial trauma
  • Lack of representation in the field
  • Multi-layered bias and discrimination
  • Historical betrayal by the scientific community
  • Disregard for cultural congruence
  • The current medical model, which is neglectful, dismissive and oppressive

Despite current challenges to equitable and meaningful mental health support for AAPI and BIPOC, helpful insights and opportunities for improvement are out there.


This blog is based on an #ElevatetheConvo Twitter chat hosted July 8, 2021, by Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas @sspencerthomas. Advocates and experts unpacked the many ways disparities show up in our BIPOC and AAPI communities and opportunities for change and help. Special thanks to guest panelists:

Sally Spencer-Thomas

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Sally Spencer-Thomas

Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a battle with bipolar condition.


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