May is National Mental Health Awareness Month – and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg (FHSP) and its community partners are increasing awareness and resources for underserved populations facing unique challenges.
The American Psychiatric Association notes that most racial and ethnic minority groups have similar – or in some cases, decreased – rates of mental disorders as whites. However, the organization adds that inaccessibility to quality care, cultural stigma, discrimination and a lack of understanding often contribute to poorer outcomes.
A 90-page report released Tuesday compared national, state and local data to better understand mental health trends among Pinellas County and St. Petersburg BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities. FHSP funded the study authored by Dr. Keesha Benson, owner of Providence Group International, and Dr. Stephanie Reed, CEO of Reed Community Consulting.
“This was nothing short of a labor of love,” Benson said. “As someone who was born and raised in St. Petersburg – six generations of my family are here – to talk about BIPOC mental health in my community is an honor.”
The comprehensive data scan began by stating that “BIPOC communities suffer the greatest disparities in all areas of health and its social determinants.” The Foundation’s leadership hopes to mitigate those challenges by making BIPOC mental health and wellness a strategic grantmaking focus.
Benson and Reed unveiled their analysis at Tuesday’s “Data Walk” event at the Center for Health Equity. A significant funding announcement kicked off the full day of programming.
Bayfront Health St. Petersburg will match the Foundation’s grants, providing $2.9 million for local organizations this year. That will go towards two priorities: $1.1 million for BIPOC mental health and wellness initiatives and $1.8 million to support economic equity and justice.
FHSP previously planned to dedicate just $350,000 to mental health this year.
“The resources that are needed to really address issues have not only been decades but centuries in the making,” said Kelly Kirschner, chair of the strategy committee.
One in five people in the U.S. have a mental illness. That ratio increases to one in three for people of two or more races, the highest of any group.
The prevalence of serious mental illnesses was highest among American Indians and Alaskan Natives, at 9.3%.
In addition to analyzing data, Benson and Reed conducted three focus groups with 31 participants. They shared lived experiences and answered questions regarding service delivery throughout Pinellas County.
Structural barriers were the most reported reason for not seeking local mental health care. Those included: Challenges finding a provider; an inability to schedule appointments when needed; inconvenient office hours; transportation issues; and conflicting work schedules.
A particular concern among BIPOC communities is finding mental health providers who match their cultural identity. Local caregivers also noted those shortages.
A graphic showed that nearly 81% of psychology professionals are white, 8% are Hispanic and just 5% are Black.
“BIPOC community members expressed their frustration in the lack of cultural awareness of some service providers and discussed additional trauma in the treatment, the need to overexplain, the compartmentalization of services due to the ‘hiding’ of various parts of their identity and not feeling comfortable in sharing their full selves,” states the study. “At times, this resulted in the discontinuation of services, dissatisfaction in service delivery or distrust in seeking future services.”
Participants also discussed how the pandemic, racial unrest and community violence negatively impacted their mental health. Education and trauma, and how to protect children, were “constant themes” throughout the conversations.
“Multiple educators said, ‘I want to help all children, not just my children. I don’t know where the resources are, I don’t know what to do and I don’t know what to say,'” Benson relayed. “Other educators said that because of the current political climate, they felt like their hands were tied.”
Benson and Reed stated the importance of community leaders providing culturally responsive education to mitigate stigmas. They should also offer shared spaces for conversations and acknowledge intergenerational trauma and racism’s impact on BIPOC mental health.
The report also suggests advocating for increased reimbursement rates and public mental health funding. It expresses the need for a streamlined, easier-to-navigate care system and engagement with BIPOC communities to bolster preventative and intervention efforts.
Benson and Reed recommended that healthcare officials recruit and train more BIPOC providers and provide culturally responsive training for others. It also notes the benefit of creating an easily accessible tool for patients to find mental health professionals that align with their cultural identity.
“In the words of Daniel Gillison, the CEO of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) National, ‘mental health conditions don’t discriminate, and neither should we,’” relayed Reed. “We’re calling for systematic change and culturally competent care, so no one feels alone in their journey.”
Read the full report here.