05/07/2014 01:15 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2014

Mental Health Wellness Critical to Nation's Well-Being

This month, the Chicago School of Professional Psychology observes Mental Health Awareness Month. It is an occasion to highlight how critical mental health wellness is to our collective well-being, and the growing acknowledgement of the crucial interplay between emotional and physical health.

More urgently, it is a month to take pause and recognize those in our lives who are living with mental health and behavioral health problems. It is estimated that approximately 1 in 4 Americans experiences a diagnosable mental health problem, while 1 in 17 lives with a serious illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. If you turn the 1 in 4 Americans into real numbers, approximately 57 million American adults live with mental illness while 26 million live with an addiction-related problem at a cost of $200 billion a year nationally when you factor in the impact on the family, unemployment, medical care, incarceration, reduced educational attainment and even homelessness.

I have blogged previously on how stigma and discriminatory practices have contributed to inequity in how people seek out treatment for psychological problems as compared to physical problems. I would like to expand this conversation to address yet another issue: the well documented disparities in health status, health care quality and utilization between racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.

Disparities in mental health status have a complex pattern. (1) African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans (with the exception of Puerto Ricans) have fewer mental health disorders than do White Americans. Mental illness increases for migrants from Mexico, Africa, and the Caribbean with time spent in the U.S.

The burden of mental illness still, however, falls disproportionately on minorities. While minorities have lower rates of psychiatric disorders when compared to White Americans -- African Americans and Hispanic Americans become more ill with those conditions. Depression among African Americans tends to be more severe, chronic, disabling, and often goes untreated compared to Whites.

The causes of mental health disparities are rooted in access and quality of care: racial and ethnic minorities have less access to mental health services than do their white counterparts, are less likely to receive needed care, and are more likely to receive poor quality care when treated. (2)

While the expansion of health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act and parity for mental health services should decrease these disparities over time, improving the quality of care -- specifically for minorities is critical. The Chicago School remains devoted to the improvement of mental health services through its community Counseling Centers in Southern California that provide low-cost services to hundreds of individuals and families each month. It's a start. Our next step is to develop a research base that will promote practices to help decrease mental health disparities.

1. Miranda, Jeanne, et al. "Mental health in the context of health disparities." American Journal of Psychiatry 165.9 (2008): 1102-1108.

2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, Md., Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, NIMH, NIH, 1999.