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Mental Health Matters: Behavioral Health Issues Don’t Discriminate

June 30, 2020 | By

By Lisa Williams, PhD
Chief Executive Officer

West Michigan Community Mental Health (CMH) serves consumers from every ethnic background, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender because we know behavioral health issues don’t discriminate. Unfortunately, as a nation we’ve recently witnessed discrimination and unfathomable acts of abject cruelty and violence against people of color.

As the chief executive officer of our local CMH, it’s my duty to address the institutionalized racism that allows these acts of tremendous violence to continue and the consequences it has on the mental health of everyone, especially black citizens.

What we have recently publicly witnessed with incidence of police brutality and the subsequent outpouring of public anger has been emotionally traumatic and painful. I have been pleased to see the leadership and clear public statements from local authorities about their position on race and violence and hope other community leaders will speak out as well.   As a person with privilege based upon my upbringing and the color of my skin, the words I have don’t express the pain I feel deep in my chest about the societal context that allows such acts of tremendous violence to continue. That said, the reality is my feelings are quite irrelevant. What matters is my behavior, the behavior of our community, and the behavior of West Michigan CMH in response to such events.

These recent acts of violence are a continuation of a pattern that has been allowed to occur in our moments of silence about critical issues of social justice. These recent incidents are more public and therefore more visible, but for each recent act we’ve so painfully witnessed there are thousands more that occur each day that go unnoticed. These visible acts, our silence, and the millions of day-to-day small injustices create a society where we accept and normalize mistreatment and alienation of people of color. And the impact of our silence in the face of injustice extends beyond race to all marginalized groups—people living in poverty, people with disabilities, people of differing sexual orientations. Racism and marginalization create trauma that affect the mental health and stability of our communities and our country. This is a social justice and power issue that West Michigan CMH is committed to confront to be truly present for our staff, our communities, and the people we serve.

If you’re wondering how these national issues affect our local communities, you don’t have to look far to see the magnitude of impact. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, both Oceana and Lake counties are designated as High Needs Geographic Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) for Mental Health and Geographic HPSAs for Primary Care. Mason County is designated as a Migrant Seasonal Worker Population HPSA for Primary Care and a Low-Income Population HPSA for Mental Health. The ratio of citizens to mental health providers in Lake County is 1,890:1, much higher than the statewide ratio of 450:1. Multiple Community Health Needs Assessments (CHNAs) completed by District Health Department #10, Spectrum Health, and Munson Healthcare confirm the needs in our communities including:

1) High rates of mental health and substance use disorders and inadequate access to treatment,

2) Poor overall physical health and high prevalence of health risk behaviors, and

3) Significant levels of poverty, trauma and other high-risk behaviors contributing to poor health outcomes.

Suicide rates in our three counties are above the national average and 41 percent of teens in Lake County reported symptoms of a major depressive episode in the past year. Abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs remain a significant concern. In Lake County, about 1 in 10 teens report drinking alcohol in the past month and 1 in 4 adults identify as a smoker, a rate nearly 50 percent higher than the national average. About 1 in 8 teens in the 3 counties report vaping in the past month, and about 1 in 8 used marijuana in the past month. All of the CHNAs conducted in the past five years have identified significant disparities in access to behavioral health treatment for certain racial and ethnic groups, LGBTQ communities, and individuals living in poverty. 25 percent of Lake County residents, 16 percent of Mason County residents and 17.5 percent of Oceana County residents live below the poverty level, all higher than state and national averages.

Racial disparities affect access to care and healthcare outcomes, including behavioral health outcomes in Lake, Mason, and Oceana counties. Although the recent atrocities did not occur here, the inequities described above are evidence of institutionalized racism that perpetuates differential treatment of people of color and marginalized citizens.

This can be a divisive issue, but it cannot be divisive for West Michigan CMH. We must be united in our effort to challenge and address racism if we are to continue to be successful in our efforts to provide high-quality behavioral health care services to anyone in our community who expresses a need. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice, the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow man.” The quote was so impactful to me, that I took a photograph of it at his memorial. For over a year it hung on the door in my office as a reminder that this is what we promise the people and communities we serve.

West Michigan CMH will be courageous and fearless in our own work to improve access to and outcomes of care for every person who asks us for help. We will be a place of hope in our community for people who are marginalized or traumatized by marginalization. We will provide services critical to support recovery based upon each individual’s need, no matter their race, ethnicity, age, gender, income, social status, sexual orientation or beliefs. We will be part of the change that creates paths of faith, hope and love out of the marginalization and discrimination.

Together we will renew, rebuild, and recover.