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November 27, 2000

Carter Center: Lecture addresses mental
health issues

Kay Torrance is communications coordinator at the Carter Center.

Less than half of Americans with severe mental disorders seek treatment, and ethnic minorities are even less likely than caucasians to ask for and receive treatment, said Surgeon General David Satcher at the 16th annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy.

The symposium on ethnic minorities and mental health was held Nov. 8–9 at the Carter Center. It highlighted the upcoming surgeon general’s supplemental report and its goals of rectifying mental health care disparities among ethnic minority populations. Satcher and Alvin Poussaint, noted Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and author of Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African Americans, spoke at the symposium.

“The best news of this report is that we can treat 80 to 90 percent of those with mental health disorders and return them to healthy, productive lives,” Satcher said.

The lack of health insurance, the stigma associated with mental illness and distrust of doctors in the system are widespread within ethnic minority populations, Satcher said. African Americans, in particular, distrust what they see to be a “white” healthcare system, and Asian Americans are especially reluctant to ask for help for fear of being shunned by their family and community, he said.

The low number of uninsured ethnic minorities and the low efficiency of the U.S. healthcare system have led to a lack of treatment, Satcher said.

“Eleven million children lack access to the healthcare system,” he said. “Our system lacks balance. One of three Hispanics is uninsured. One of four African Americans is uninsured.”

Poussaint said African Americans’ fear of accessing mental health doctors is the result of a history of mistrust.

“It was only 35 years ago that we began to get rid of segregated hospitals,” Poussaint said. “Blacks had to trade their dignity to get medical care. This fear and distrust runs very deep.” He said African Americans associate mental health doctors with the justice system: “There are only two people who can lock you up—a cop and a psychiatrist.”

Like other ethnic minorities, African Americans suffer from a lack of affordable health insurance and the stigma surrounding mental illness, Poussaint said.

Satcher and former first lady Rosalynn Carter, a longtime mental health advocate, both called for more funding, for a national strategy to reduce the stigma of mental illness and for health insurance companies to provide parity among mental health treatment and other physical disorders.

Although progress is slow, Satcher pointed to a recent event—a bill signed by President Bill Clinton, which goes into effect next year, dictates that any federal employee health plan must include parity for mental health treatment—as reason for hope.

Representatives from more than 100 major mental health organizations participated in the symposium.


Back to Emory Report Nov. 27, 2000