Mental Health Disparities in Hispanic/Latinx Communities

Dr. Kristyn Gregory

| 4 min read

Dr. Kristyn Gregory, D.O., is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Dr. Gregory received her medical degree from the Chicago School of Osteopathic Medicine. She then completed residency training in Adult Psychiatry at Henry Ford, and a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Wayne State University. She is board-certified in Adult, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She has practiced in a variety of settings in the metro Detroit area including inpatient, residential, outpatient, school-based and juvenile justice programs.

An estimated one in five American adults live with a mental illness. In 2021, that figure accounted for 57.8 million people. Even though mental illness affects all ages and races, certain racial groups may be disproportionately affected. 
Hispanic/Latinx communities are similarly vulnerable to mental illness as the general population, but they face disparities in both access to and quality of treatment. Hispanic Americans use mental health services at about half the rate of white individuals per year, and more than half of Hispanic young adults ages 18-25 with serious mental illness may not receive treatment,according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).This inequality puts these communities at a higher risk for more severe and persistent forms of mental health conditions because mental health conditions often worsen if they are not treated.

Barriers to care 

A little more than 35% of Hispanic/Latinx adults with mental illness receive treatment each year, compared to the U.S. average of 46.2%. This disparity can be attributed to many unique barriers, including:
  • Lack of cultural competence among providers: Due to cultural differences and/or lack of cultural competency, mental health providers may misunderstand or misdiagnose Hispanic/Latinx patients.
  • Language barriers: Several studies have found that bilingual patients are evaluated differently when interviewed in English as opposed to Spanish. Health-related issues can be tough for anyone to articulate, but it is especially difficult for those who may not speak the same language as their provider.
  • Legal status: For immigrants who arrive without documentation, the fear of deportation can prevent them from seeking help.
  • Poverty: According to NAMI, 17% of Hispanic/Latinx people in the U.S. live in poverty, compared to 8.2% of non-Hispanic whites. Individuals who live in poverty have a higher risk of mental illness and, conversely, individuals with mental illness have a higher risk of living in poverty.
  • Stigma: Some people in the Latinx community view mental illness as a sign of weakness. Others think it’s a personal issue to be kept private. Some people do not seek treatment for mental illness out of fear of being labeled as “locos” (crazy) or bringing shame and unwanted attention to their families.

Tackling barriers to care

Although barriers to care vary among patients, addressing those that specifically affect Hispanic/Latinx communities is possible through some of the following tactics:
  • Changing the primary care setting: By changing the primary care practice to evaluate a patient’s mental health, providers are better able to identify the need for mental health care during regular check-ups. Doctors can also discuss preventive care as it relates to mental health, whether it’s reducing stress, exercising, or simply recognizing possible signs of poor mental health.
  • Expanding the network: Health care coverage must be inclusive of doctors, hospitals and clinics serving minority groups.
  • Promoting diversity: Understanding different cultures and exploring cultural identity may offer important information to tailor the mental health treatment of Hispanic/Latinx clients or patients. Culture plays a major role in a person’s health and well-being and may sometimes affect the provider’s ability to best serve their patient’s needs, and it’s important to recognize that.
  • Raising awareness: Mental illness affects everyone differently, and there is no one-size-fits-all diagnosis or treatment. With the help of a primary care physician, patients within every community can learn how to successfully manage their mental health for the long run.

Finding free or low-cost mental health care

Quality, affordable care is available to those with limited resources. Individuals without insurance can access free or low-cost mental health services through the following:
  • Community mental health: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services oversees community-based programs located in counties throughout the state.
  • Federally Qualified Health Centers: These facilities provide health care for people with mild to moderate mental illness. 
  • Free or low-cost care locations: This Help with Care directory lists local free or low-cost facilities that provide dental and behavioral services. It’s a regional directory that can be downloaded or ordered by mail, at no charge.
  • Safety net clinics: Many statewide clinics connected to non-profits, community organizations and faith groups can offer mental health services or patient referrals. For more information, click here.
For more information on health insurance in Michigan, visit https://mi211.org/. A person can also call 844-875-9211, dial 211 or text their zip code to 898211.
Kristyn Gregory, D.O., is medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health news and information, visit MIBluesPerspectives.com.
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Photo credit: Getty Images

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