06/07/2013 01:05 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

Culturally Sensitive Providers Will Help Bring Mental Illness Out of Shadows

It is certainly good to see that the conversation about access to mental health services and removing the stigma of mental illness have moved out of the shadows and are now at the forefront of discussions within the White House and across the nation.

At a recent conference convened by the president to drive home these two goals, the mention of gun violence in the mental health debate was notably absent, as it should be. By now, thanks to research and the accurate reporting of statistics, we know that those with a mental illness are more often the victim of violence than its perpetrator. Still, recent incidences of community-based violence have left some people afraid of the mentally ill. I believe that the solution to this sense of uncertainly lies directly within us. We should always be asking ourselves: What can we do as individuals, communities and as a nation to equalize the perception and treatment of mental illness with that of one's physical health and well-being? What really are the questions we are asking? Do we need to reframe the issues on the table?

One of the main goals of the conference was to encourage individuals to come forward and seek treatment. In his opening remarks, the president said, "We've got to get rid of that embarrassment. We've got to get rid of that stigma." Although many are aligned with this goal and understand it is the right path to be taking, the notion that we can simply wish away embarrassment and stigma after hundreds of years tells me that we still have much understanding to advance and, indeed, much work to accomplish on behalf of those with a mental health problem. The issue of stigma, in and of itself, is remarkably complex.

Notably absent in any remarks was the mention of increasing mental health funding -- including the adequate funding of training opportunities for emerging mental health practitioners and psychologists. This nation has systematically cut spending for school-based programs and for community agencies attempting to provide mental and behavioral health care, and substance abuse programming. Additionally, there are thousands of people with mental health problems incarcerated each year, oftentimes because there are no alternatives. I applaud the president's call to action -- now we have to make it possible for those that have the capacity to make an impact actually be successful.

There was also another crucial omission in the president's remarks: The training and recruitment of culturally competent mental health providers -- a critical ingredient for reducing mental health stigma in diverse communities. Like all things, individual communities view mental illness through a diverse lens. However, in many communities and across cultural divides, those with a mental health problem are stigmatized and even feared. Many are locked away in the homes of relatives until they no longer can care for them, and many are cast out onto the streets to wander and suffer even more.

At a time when our nation is made up of approximately 36.3 percent of individuals who belong to a racial or ethnic minority group, it is imperative that we begin to identify and recruit mental health leaders who are willing to work within their communities with the training and skill sets that can truly make a deep and meaningful difference. A good beginning is to encourage diverse students from across the globe to enter the mental health profession and to bring their cultural values and uniqueness with them. This is how communities will begin to overcome fear and stigma.

Talk is a start. Action is what is needed. Only when we purposefully and strategically take on the task of bringing advocates, researchers, psychologists and other mental health professionals together to develop innovative and multiculturally competent mental health education and treatment programs will we begin to bring mental illness out of the shadows. Only when we appropriately fund mental health services and put the accountabilities in place that are needed, will we be successful.

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