Addressing Barriers in Minority Mental Health

African-Americans and Latinos face a number of roadblocks when it comes to mental health care. Here, two local experts offer insight and advice for families on addressing mental health disorders.

Malkia Newman was in her early 40s when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“I suffered all of my adult life,” Newman says. “I knew that I had depression, but I didn’t know that I was dealing with mania associated with bipolar disorder.”

Those episodes of high “highs” followed by crashes made it difficult for Newman to maintain healthy relationships and employment. Oftentimes, she struggled to simply get out of bed in the morning.

“A lot of times for me, I felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest,” she says. “I couldn’t move.”

After decades of suffering, Newman received her diagnosis 20 years ago. Today, she dedicates her life to helping people with mental health disorders seek support and treatment as a community educator for CNS Healthcare, a health agency with clinics in Novi, Southfield, Pontiac, Waterford and Dearborn.

As the supervisor of the health agency’s Anti-Stigma Team, Newman shares her experience with bipolar disorder through community outreach work. It’s an important job, particularly in minority communities where there is a disparity in mental health care. What causes the gap in care and how can families help? Read on for more in honor of Minority Mental Health Month.

Roadblocks in recovery

“We handle it ourselves. We do not go outside of the family for problem solving.”

That’s something Debra Ehrmann, the vice president of Centro Multicultural in Pontiac, has heard family members say regarding an individual’s mental health disorder. Some may view mental illness as shameful; others may view it as something that God can help cure.

“The stigma could be a religious component, something they don’t want people outside of the family knowing,” Ehrmann says.

And because many mental health agencies lack cultural competence – and ultimately might not see these concerns as valid – this poses problems for both the provider and the person seeking help.

Language can pose other issues, Ehrmann notes. For people from different Spanish-speaking countries, for example, the dialects may vary, so it can be difficult to understand one another.

Trust is also important. “A facility may not understand the importance of trust,” Ehrmann says, since many immigrants in this country feel they have to trust the agency or the therapist in order to receive care.

Insurance can pose issues for individuals, too. “A lot of families do not have insurance, or if they do have insurance, they have high deductibles that they cannot afford,” Ehrmann says.

At Centro Multicultural, families are offered a sliding scale for payment, and some programs are offered at no cost, she adds.

Lack of transportation – like not having a license or access to the bussing system, not having day care, racism and not feeling welcome – are just some of the additional barriers that minority groups face when seeking care.

Finding help

When it comes to care, CNS Healthcare and Centro Multicultural both provide minority groups support and access to services. Within your own family, there are ways to help, too.

“I would say that a family member should be understanding – that this is something that does happen,” Ehrmann says.

Don’t feel ashamed. Seek help and find an agency you can trust to help your family member move forward with his or her care.

“We want to empower families to give them the services they need,” she says. And that’s just what Centro Multicultural does.

If your family member was recently diagnosed with a mental health disorder, do your research, Newman suggests. “Find out what the symptoms are, get as much information as you can.” This helps you recognize the struggles they have.

Don’t put pressure on your loved one, and remember to take time out for yourself. “We have to separate ourselves from them to be the strength that they need,” Newman adds.

Also try to educate others, and be mindful of your language. Don’t use the word “crazy” and don’t call people “bipolar” – instead, they are a person who has bipolar disorder.

Providing support at home, as well as utilizing the resources available in the community, can help those with mental health disorders overcome their obstacles.

“You might be in a dark place today but just hold on,” Newman says. “The light is coming.”

Brought to you by the Oakland Community Health Network. For more information, visit


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