Kontrena McPheter, Peer Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator, Success Over Stigma - Interim, Inc.
Luis Saldana-Ruiz, Social Worker III, Monterey County Behavioral Health
July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. This month of observance is meant to bring awareness to the unique struggles that racial and ethnic minorities face regarding mental illness in the United States.
Racial/ethnic minority groups are much less likely than their non-Hispanic white peers to receive treatment:
- Non-Hispanic white: 51.8%
Reasons for this vary, but may include one or more of the following factors:
– Cost/Insurance: Cost of care/little to no coverage
– Low Perceived Need: Do not feel the need for services or believe they can self-manage
– Prejudice Discrimination: Negative impacts of employment or relationships
– Do not believe in effectiveness: Do not think services would help
– Structural barriers: Lack of transportation, inconvenience, do not know how to access services
Kontrena McPheter, Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator for the Success Over Stigma Program, considers fighting stigma part of her job. She trains clients to go out into the community to talk about their experiences with mental illness to others, and to inspire hope in their peers. By educating the community, stigma against mental illness is lessened.
We asked Kontrena about how mental illness is stigmatized within the African community. Growing up, she remembers hearing the stories of the Tuskeegee airmen, who were experimented on by the US Public Health Service. The purpose of the experiment was to observe the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African-American men in Alabama under the guise of receiving free health care from the United States government. She also grew up with a lot of home remedies. Doctors were only used for major illness. Even faced with a bout of Hepatitis A at the age of 6, her mother didn’t want her to take western medicines like antibiotics. Her mother also felt that being African-American, her daughter wouldn’t receive the same treatment as a white child. A native of Louisiana, her own experiences with racism probably informed her mistrust of the health system.
Discrimination, racism and experience taught the African-American community that mistrust of the health care system was safer. The vestiges of that inherited culture of suspicion still linger.
Later in life, Kontrena had to learn to trust the health system to give her the treatment she needed for her bipolar disorder. “Some people choose to white-knuckle it. I know some other people in my community that refuse to take their medication because of what it does to them. But I know now that medication works. I’m not being tested on. Those meds work!”
Nonetheless, she sees progress as projects like the Village Project in Seaside have established themselves with the community. The Village Project was founded to help meet the needs of the underserved African American Community. Projects that can establish themselves as trusted providers of counseling and educational services can break down trust barriers.
We also spoke with Luis Saldana-Ruiz, a Spanish language bilingual Social Worker with Monterey County Behavioral Health. Luis, a Mexican immigrant himself, is uniquely positioned to understand the challenges faced by his community. He works with families and observes first-hand the reticence of his community around receiving care. He explains that while we have made a lot of progress in expanding services and access to care in Monterey County, the stigma is still prevalent. “We need to provide more targeted education in schools and to families to address Hispanic/Latino community stigma, as well as improve awareness of local resources… Ultimately, individuals will be more willing to accept ongoing care if the stigma around services is reduced within the community.”
As we celebrate Minority Mental Health Month, we would like to highlight the extraordinary individuals like Kontrena and Luis that alleviate stigma through their daily work. Building a culturally sensitive system of care starts with a foundational awareness of the challenges faced by the people who need our services, and what prevents them from accessing care. Interim, Inc. is at the forefront of hiring staff that look like and understand the communities we serve.