Are Mental Health Professionals Immune From Racism?
Recently I read a very disturbing article on PsychCentral entitled: “What’s In A Name? It May Determine If You Can Get Therapy” by Janice Wood. I was already familiar with the 2003 study that found those with black-sounding names were less likely to receive call-backs for job interviews than those with white-sounding names but I never dreamed that might be a factor in receiving mental health services!
Can A Counselor Be Racist?
What Is Institutional Racism?
Institutional racism is the: “…societal patterns that have the net effect of imposing oppressive or otherwise negative conditions against identifiable groups on the basis of race or ethnicity.” –Tom Head*, Civil Liberties, About.com.
Rather than the individual prejudice of one person, or in this case one clinician, institutional racism has to do with the prevailing ideas a society has about a race or ethnicity that lead to widespread negative ideas that can be so insidious we do not recognize them.
“While callback rates for black-sounding and white-sounding names were the same, clinicians were more likely to tell those with black-sounding names that their case loads were full.”
What Can Professionals Do About Institutional Racism?
I doubt that any one clinician says to themselves: “I won’t call Lakisha back” or “I don’t want a black client” but they may have preconceived notions about the class of a potential client based on race.
For example, they may assume that “Lakisha” has Medicaid or insurance with a lower reimbursement rate than “Allison.” Self-pay only clinicians might assume “Allison” can afford their advertised rate but “Lakisha” will want sliding scale. The may assume that “Lakisha” works a menial job with less flexibility to attend daytime appointments than “Allison” might.
While they might not realize that these stereotypes and assumptions are racist – they are. In fact, NAMI the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that African American males “are more likely to receive a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia when expressing symptoms related to mood disorders or PTSD.” In fact, African Americans as a whole are over-diagnosed with Schizophrenia according to William B. Lawson, MD, PhD, professor and chair of psychiatry at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC. 
Mental Health Professionals Must Be Overtly Anti-Racism
It is troubling that in 2016 an individual in need of mental health services might continue to suffer because of their race. It is especially upsetting when you take into consideration that “according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.” 
It is important that we, as professionals, strive to provide the same quality of care to all those who seek our services. We must speak out if we see institutional racism in our workplaces. It is equally important for people of color who are seeking mental health services feel empowered to advocate for themselves.
If you feel you have experienced discrimination in your search for mental health treatment you can learn more about self advocacy at NAMI.org. For more on Racial Disparities in Mental Health Treatment visit SocialWork at Simmons’ blog.
* You will have to forgive me quoting an old friend. He just happens to be one of the most-read authors covering civil liberties on the internet!
Stacey is a therapist in private practice in the Jackson, MS area. She believes that mental health professionals should be at the forefront of promoting anti-racism and social justice.
Stacey Aldridge, LCSW