Students of color less likely to receive needed mental health treatment, study shows

A new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health finds that, among college students with clinically significant mental health problems, students of color are much less likely than white students to obtain diagnoses and receive treatment. College populations pose special significance in the field of mental health, lead study author Sarah Lipson explains, “because nearly 75 percent of mental illnesses first appear by the time someone is in their mid-20s.”

For the survey-based Healthy Minds study—the first nationally representative study since the 1990s to examine mental health among college students of color—Lipson and colleagues analyzed data from 43,375 undergraduate and graduate students at 60 participating institutions between 2012 and 2015. The study sample included 13,412 students of color, who self-identified as African American, Latinx, Asian/Asian American, Arab/Arab American, or multiracial.

Significant disparities in treatment across race and ethnicity

Overall, 42 percent of students met criteria for a mental health problem. Among white students with a mental health problem, 48 percent had received a diagnosis, compared with 21 percent of African-American students with a mental health problem. Approximately 80 percent of Asian students with apparent mental health conditions had gone untreated, and Asians who did seek treatment on campus had the highest rates of distress at intake, followed by Latinx, African-American, and white students.

Students’ knowledge of mental health resources and perceptions of stigma associated with seeking treatment varied across racial and ethnic groups. Arab/Arab-American students were found to have the highest prevalence of mental health problems and yet the lowest level of knowledge about mental health resources. African-American students, meanwhile, reported holding the least stigma about mental health.

Lipson concludes that “there is enormous unmet need for mental health services in college student populations writ large, and students of color represent a disparities population based on even greater unmet mental health needs relative to white students.”

Opportunities for improvement, further analysis

Pointing to the correlation between mental health during the college years and degree completion, Lipson says that “understanding and addressing the mental health needs of racially diverse students is essential to supporting their success and creating equity in other dimensions, including persistence and retention.”

The study authors also emphasize the importance of understanding how factors such as adjustment to a different culture and experiences of discrimination relate to mental health and help-seeking. They recommend increasing the number of individuals able to recognize mental illness in diverse young people and connect them with needed services; providing tailored, targeted outreach to students of color; and conducting more longitudinal studies that account for intersectional identities.

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