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The Effect of Cultural Stereotypes on Mental and Public Health

Jun 4, 2014, 9:00 AM

Lorenzo Lorenzo-Luaces graduated from the University of Puerto Rico–Rio Piedras, where he studied cross-cultural differences in suicidality. He is currently a graduate student in the University of Pennsylvania clinical psychology PhD program. Lorenzo-Luaces is an alumnus of Project L/EARN, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, and Rutgers University.

The population of groups referred to as “minority” is growing at a faster rate in this country than Caucasians, with estimates suggesting that by 2060, 57 percent of the U.S. population will be non-White. This demographic shift could create a public health concern if racial/ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in mental health research. At present, these populations are less likely to receive mental health care than Whites. When they do receive care, it is usually of lesser quality.

Stereotypes among racial/ethnic minority communities regarding mental health are complex. Research suggests that they tend to have more negative beliefs about mental illnesses than White communities; for example, they are more likely to believe that mental illnesses occur due to factors outside of the individual’s control (e.g., spiritual or environmental reasons). However, despite generally holding more negative views about mental illnesses, research shows that racial/ethnic minorities tend to have less punitive attitudes about the mentally ill. Moreover, they tend to be more accepting about mental health treatments, although they express a clear preference for psychological services over medications.

Differences in access to care, rather than attitudes, likely explain the racial/ethnic gap in service use. Besides the obvious discrepancies in socioeconomic status (SES) between Caucasians and racial/ethnic minorities, the latter’s preference for psychological services may be one barrier to access. This is because, even among the insured, psychological services are more expensive in the short term and harder to access than psychotropic medications. There also are questions as to whether psychological interventions tested largely on White populations are effective for minorities. 

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