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Does Race Matter When It Comes to Treating Depression?

By Jessica Friedel, NAMI Communications Intern

Depression knows no racial, ethnic or national boundaries, but according to a new study, it appears that treatment does.

In a study published in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, a panel of researchers from the University of Michigan and Indiana University studied data from 1993-2007 and found that Caucasians are more than one-and-one-half times more likely to be prescribed antidepressants than Hispanic or African American minorities when receiving treatment for depression.

The cause of this discrepancy is multifaceted. The study supplemented previous studies, which have found sociological factors such as race, ethnicity and health insurance status to affect doctors' prescribing habits. However, the catalyst for such habits is not so much race as it is health insurance standing. Medicare and Medicaid patients are 31 and 38 percent less likely to receive a prescription for antidepressants. In addition, some racial and ethnic groups are less likely to take antidepressants, because of certain attitudes, according to study co-author Dr. Hsien-Chang Lin. Language barriers and religious beliefs also play a role in the differences in care.

Loretta Jones, founder and executive director of Healthy African American Families agrees with Dr. Lin and points specifically to depression among African Americans. Jones told The Atlantic that because of the stigma associated with mental illness, African Americans are less likely to take antidepressants because they are less likely to ask for them.

NAMI Greater Milwaukee's Brenda Wesley, trained mental health educator and facilitator told the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel that many minorities wait too long before seeking help, causing doctors to misdiagnose patients living with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia due to their elevated symptoms.

In an interview published in NAMI's The Advocate, Dr. Annelle Primm discussed African American attitudes toward health care and the focus on faith instead of medicine when it comes to mental illness. The interview can be read here.

NAMI recognizes the need to eliminate disparities in mental health care, and so created the NAMI Multicultural Action Center (MAC) in 2002. Not only does MAC attempt to decrease stigma through public education, it also cultivates strong partnerships with multicultural organizations in order to directly address issues that affect diverse communities. MAC regularly publishes content that offers information and updates on topics concerning multicultural issues in mental health. Additionally, MAC publishes Avanzamos, a Spanish-language magazine to provide Latino communities with information and resources on mental illness.

To ensure that every person affected by mental illness gets the treatment he or she needs, it's important to educate not only health care providers about the discrepancy in care, but also educate the communities who may not be aware of treatment options or trust the health care system in the United States.

NAMI offers many resources for individuals of diverse communities, such as the faith-based outreach program Sharing Hope , publications tailored for ethnic groups and much more. Visit NAMI's MAC web section to explore these topics.

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