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BIPOC Mental Health: Barriers and Ways to Support

BIPOC Mental Health: Barriers and Ways to Support

Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) experience mental illness at similar rates as white people, but they’re less likely to get treatment due to cultural barriers, stigma, and lack of access to care. These disparities can have a serious impact on BIPOC mental health. People who don’t receive treatment for mental illness are more likely to experience persistent symptoms that interfere with their daily lives. BIPOC mental health statistics show that:

In the workplace, the impact of discrimination and pressure to perform (and sometimes, overperform) in a way that lowers the risk for negative evaluation can heighten mental distress for BIPOC employees. For companies, this distress can, in turn, contribute to lower retention, loss of workplace diversity, and poor organizational outcomes. Studies show focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) makes companies stronger and delivers more engaging employee experiences.

Barriers to BIPOC mental health

A key component of an effective DEIB strategy is recognizing the unique mental health challenges marginalized employees face and proactively working to overcome them. Not all BIPOC people have these challenges, and the groups represented by the acronym have different experiences when it comes to mental health care accessibility and quality. Barriers to BIPOC mental health can include the following.

Lack of insurance

Due to racial disparities in access to health coverage, certain minoritized communities in the United States are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured than white Americans. It can be difficult for many people to afford mental health care, even if it’s covered by insurance. Research shows that compared to 7.2 percent of white Americans who are uninsured:

  • Hispanic and American Indian and Alaskan Native (AIAN) people are uninsured at 19 percent and 21.2 percent respectively.
  • Those identifying as Black and Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander (NHOPI) are uninsured at 10.9 percent and 10.8 percent respectively.

Physical barriers

Proximity can stand in the way of BIPOC mental health care, too. It’s challenging for people living with a lower socioeconomic status to find affordable mental health providers near them. They may have less access to health insurance and need to pay out of pocket for mental health care, which many simply are not able to do because they don’t have the disposable income. 

Mental health providers are more likely to be located closer to populations with a higher socioeconomic status. It may also be assumed that people have the resources to travel to an inconvenient location. Since research shows that Black and Latinx Americans are more likely to live at or below the poverty level and lack health insurance compared to their white counterparts, they may struggle to find a provider they can conveniently and consistently access. 

One study found that nearly half of Americans drive over an hour round trip to get treatment or know someone who does. This isn’t feasible for many BIPOC people, who are more likely to have jobs that make it hard to get to and from therapy sessions. People in the BIPOC community are 80 percent less likely to have the option to take time off work. They’re also less likely to have access to a car than white people.

Stigma

Mental illness can carry stigma in certain BIPOC communities. 

  • In one study, 63 percent of Black Americans reported believing that a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness. It’s not to be discussed openly because it’s looked at as “airing dirty laundry.” Black Americans are also more likely to end mental health treatment prematurely or not seek treatment at all due to the cultural stigma around  help-seeking. 
  • In many Asian cultures, mental health disorders are surrounded by shame and thought to reflect poorly on the family and decrease suitability for marriage. Asian Americans are more likely to report physical symptoms like fatigue or headaches instead of emotions like worry or sadness.
  • Talking about mental illness in Latinx culture is often viewed as taboo, particularly because of a strong cultural emphasis on keeping personal matters private. Traditional expectations about how men and women should behave (also known as gender role expectations) can also perpetuate stigma. For example, men are often expected to be strong and dominant, while women are expected to be nurturing and submissive. These expectations can make it tough  for people experiencing mental distress to share with others and seek support. 

Read more about how to destigmatize bipoc mental health.

Cultural mistrust

People in minoritized communities, particularly in the Black community, have endured a history of negative mental health care experiences. They may have been misdiagnosed, mistreated, or misunderstood by a provider, or heard about these experiences from people in their community. As a result, they may hesitate to fully trust a mental health care provider, fearing that they will experience harm or discrimination. This concern is heightened when people in these communities have a white provider. 

Lack of culturally responsive providers

Historical and current systemic oppression may contribute to people of color’s hesitancy to be vulnerable with white people. This fear can show up in personal and professional settings. People of color may prefer to see therapists of their ethnicity, but 84 percent of psychologists in the U.S. identify as white. This lack of racial representation among mental health providers can create barriers to BIPOC mental health care and perpetuate mistrust and lower help-seeking rates.

6 ways employers can support BIPOC mental health

For many BIPOC individuals, workplace experiences have contributed to poorer mental health outcomes. Workplaces have caused harm (intentional or otherwise), and many BIPOC employees may carry older wounds into new workspaces. Employers have the opportunity to create an environment where BIPOC employees feel seen, valued, and heard, including those who have previously experienced workplace race-based discrimination. 

#1 Build BIPOC representation across all organizational levels

Companies should consider whether their BIPOC employees’ professional roles counter or reinforce the narrative that their primary function is to serve others. Historically, BIPOC individuals have often been relegated to frontline-service roles, such as customer support or caregiving. This can unintentionally fuel racial stereotypes and bias. Working to build BIPOC representation across all levels of a company is a great first step to countering this narrative. 

Increasing BIPOC representation across all levels can:

  • Expand perceived career growth
  • Decrease feelings of isolation, particularly within specific departments
  • Give other departments the benefits of diverse perspectives

When BIPOC individuals are the only one or one of a few at higher levels, it can impact their psychological safety at work and raises concerns such as: 

  • Will ideas I put forward that advocate for my perspective as a person of color be supported? 
  • Will my colleagues reject the thoughts and feelings that reflect my experience? 
  • Will my presence create assumptions that carry over into my co-workers’ interaction with the next person of color they interact with? 

When the BIPOC community is represented across teams and departments at organizations, these employees have the opportunity to thrive. Representation can increase BIPOC employee engagement and confidence in contributions to company successes.

#2 Establish a sense of community in the workplace

Community and social support deeply impact mental health, and the quality of community at work contributes to an inclusive and emotionally healthy environment. Helping BIPOC employees find belonging is a crucial part of championing BIPOC mental health and wellness. Mentorship programs, dedicated internal messaging channels, employee resource groups (ERGs), or even grassroots-supported BIPOC community spaces build connections and increase psychological safety.

It’s employers’ responsibility to ensure that the employees who need community can find it. BIPOC community engagement information should be available to all workers, even during an interview process and orientation sessions. Following up with employees to ensure they understand how to get involved (if they desire) shows the company’s commitment to BIPOC community engagement. 

#3 Communicate clearly and consistently about company benefits

When the full scope of benefits is presented clearly and habitually, it can remove some of the barriers to BIPOC mental health care. The following questions help assess how well-informed employees are about company benefits: 

  • Do employees know the full range of benefits they’re entitled to through the workplace? 
  • Can employees easily find company resources about the benefits package? 
  • Do employees know who to turn to for questions about these services? 
  • Do new hires receive in-depth information on this subject during orientation? 

Information about employee benefits should be easy to access and navigate; someone in mental distress may not have the capacity to search through excessive content. This is especially important with a robust benefits package that has many options. Employers should confirm that mental health benefits provide an option for employees to choose a provider based on their specific needs, such as racial background and/or specialization in working with a specific need, like race-based stress. 

#4 Embrace cultural differences instead of assimilation

Every workplace develops a culture, whether intentionally or not. Just as BIPOC employees can feel obligated to assimilate into social cultures, they may face similar pressure at work to blur their boundaries or abandon parts of their cultural identity to fit in. Employers should encourage room for boundaries and systems that help BIPOC employees thrive and express needs. 

With a spirit of positive collaboration, make sure BIPOC employees feel empowered to share what they need with their manager. Create opportunities for them to be an active participant in shaping workplace culture, and explicitly discuss cultural norms and expectations for the workplace. It may be helpful to also discuss how certain workplace performance indicators, such as “effective communicator,” “professional,” and “team player” might be influenced by cultural norms and biases.

#5 Be helpful, not harmful when responding to BIPOC mental health concerns

Historically, BIPOC communities have been forced to engage in survival mode to endure systemic oppression. They’ve also had less access and ability to afford mental health services. Many people may have gotten messages  that mental health care is a luxury and/or sign of weakness. They may rely on a “fake it till you make it” attitude and suppress internal stress, hoping those around them will think they’re thriving. This is why it’s crucial to prioritize mental health and normalize it in a workplace setting, especially for these communities. Employers should ensure employees know that they can be transparent about their needs, and encourage managers and colleagues to support employees who disclose their struggles with the mental health resources available.

Mental health resources should support any obstacles or crises employees disclose. It can erode trust if leaders tell employees to be authentic at work yet don’t have resources to help them share concerns about mental health. Discretion and safety are paramount so that employees trust leaders and the company. It’s important to reinforce the availability of mental health resources after someone communicates their needs or distress.

#6 Expect challenges and mistakes as part of the process

Employers should treat mistakes and missteps as opportunities to learn and evolve, rather than a reason to avoid the work. It’s important to explore any perceived failures as a way to learn and make progress toward a more inclusive workplace.

You have the power to make change

Your organization’s commitment to DEIB speaks volumes to BIPOC employees about how you value them. Although a diverse workforce faces great challenges, organizations can be catalysts for sustained change. BIPOC employees may walk into a new workplace setting carrying hurt and harm from past experiences. By prioritizing BIPOC mental health, building BIPOC community, and increasing access to mental health care, you can make your workplace—and ultimately your company culture—stronger and more inclusive for all employees.

Learn more about how to support BIPOC employees.

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About the reviewer
Andrea Holman, PhD

Dr. Holman is a DEI&B program manager on the workforce transformation team at Lyra Health. Previously, she served as a tenured associate professor of psychology at Huston-Tillotson University. She served as co-chair of the health and wellness working group for the city of Austin's task force on Institutional Racism & Systemic Inequities and now works as a leader in the nonprofit Central Texas Collective for Race Equity that resulted from the task force. She has conducted research on understanding the psychological experience of African Americans and racial advocacy from the perspective of Black and Latinx Americans. She has contributed to articles (including publications in The Counseling Psychologist and Harvard Business Review), book chapters, national conference presentations, virtual seminars, workshops, and a number of podcasts on these subjects.

Clinically reviewed by
Andrea Holman, PhD
Program Manager, Workforce Transformation
By The Lyra Team
30 of June 2023 - 9 min read
BIPOC
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