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July 30, 2019

An Interview with Dr. Courtney Aklin from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities

Type: News Tags: Interview, Newsletter, Mental Health, Minority Health

This month we spoke with Courtney Aklin, Ph.D., from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). 

Dr. Aklin serves as the Chief of Staff at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In this position Dr. Aklin develops and implements strategic initiatives designed to fulfill the Institute’s vision and mission

In this month's featured interview, we discussed the most promising strategies for addressing disparities in minority mental health in primary care.

When you think about initiatives aimed at addressing disparities in minority mental health, what is one of the most promising strategies?

Awareness is one of the best strategies for addressing mental health disparities among minority populations. Mental illness is a leading health problem across the United States and one that is most demanding on our healthcare system.  Depression alone is the leading cause of disability and major contributor to the global burden of disease.  While minorities experience mental illness in similar rates as Caucasians, they are less likely to seek services and when services are sought they are usually of poorer quality and when problems are more severe. 

Minority populations often experience more stigma and shame around the discussion of mental illness and therefore tend to suffer in silence.  Suffering in silence is easier to maintain when communities are not aware of the signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to deal with them. In 2008, in recognition of the importance of Increasing awareness of mental illness in minority populations, Congress designated July as minority mental health month.  Since then several organizations, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), have used this observance as a call for action to shed light on what will continue to be a growing problem if not addressed. NAMI’s share your story campaign is an example of a way to increase awareness by providing access to stories of minorities who have been affected by mental illness. 

We know that stigma, attitudes, and fear are key barriers that prevent minority populations from seeking care. What are some things that could be addressed to help increase the use of mental health care among minorities?

Along with awareness is the importance of education and knowing the facts.  Having knowledge about mental illness and where to go for treatment is a critical factor in decreasing stigma and fear.  Providing factual and accurate information to communities can ultimately help decrease these barriers and encourage individuals to reach out for help.

In the spirit of enhancing the dialogue and decreasing the stigma around mental illness within minority communities, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), in partnership with the national fraternity Omega Psi Phi, Inc., created Brother You’re on Mind (BYOMM).  BYOMM is designed to engage and educate African American men, their families and their surrounding communities about the effects of depression and stress and the importance of seeking help. It is a step towards letting populations that typically remain silent about mental health, to know that it is OK to talk about the struggles of mental illness and to go for help. As part of this initiative, an educational toolkit was developed to provide resources to host community events where factual information can be shared

Integrated models of behavioral health in primary care hold promise for increasing access and addressing disparities. What is needed in the healthcare setting to meet minority populations mental health needs?

The diversity of the United States is continuing to grow, making awareness and education of those suffering with mental illness and families and communities who are impacted by these difficulties paramount.  However, just as important is having a diverse and well-trained workforce who are able to identify the signs and symptoms and to provide appropriate care.  This is especially true in caring for minority populations who tend to enter the healthcare system for mental health care at emergency settings. 

More attention needs to be given to the communication between patients and mental healthcare providers to insure that the environment is safe for individuals to seek help.  One way that mental health providers can provide a safe space is to educate themselves about culturally acceptable care.  There are resources available to help build skills and knowledge around National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS standards) in health care. For example, the US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health sponsors a free e-learning program on improving cultural competency specifically for behavioral health professionals.


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