WASHINGTON, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- Despite having similar rates of mental health problems, black and Hispanic children and teens receive about half the mental health services their white counterparts do -- often receiving disciplinary action rather than help for the same behaviors.
The disproportionate use of psychological services and social work between white, black and Hispanic students for mental health and behavioral problems has long-term effects on individual students and the community, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Health Services.
Researchers found the need for mental health services is similar between black and white students, and even found underuse of services with Hispanic students, though their parents report less impairment among their children.
White students are referred for counseling or other services for behavioral or drug issues while black and Hispanic students often face discipline instead.
"Minority kids don't get help when they're in trouble," Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a professor at City University of New York and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, said in a press release. "Instead they get expelled or jailed. But punishing people for mental illness or addiction is both inhumane and ineffective. The lack of care for minority youth is the real crime."
For the study, researchers analyzed data on children under 18 and adults between age 18 and 34 collected for the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey between 2006 and 2012.
The researchers found, when compared to white children, black children make 37 percent fewer visits to psychiatrists and 47 percent fewer visits to any mental health professional, while Hispanic children make 49 percent fewer visits to psychiatrists and 58 percent fewer visits to any mental health professional.
Among young adults, whites received about three times the outpatient mental health services blacks and Hispanics did. Black young adults also received about one-seventh the substance abuse counseling that white young adults received, which researchers call striking.
The researchers suggest the data is predictive. Groups with the highest rates of incarceration -- blacks and Hispanics -- have significantly low mental health visit rates, despite at least half of inmates having an untreated mental illness when they were first arrested.
"It has become increasingly clear that minorities are over-represented in the criminal justice system and underrepresented in the receipt of mental health care," said Dr. Lyndonna Marrast, an assistant professor of medicine at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. "We need to look closely at how equitably our health care institutions are serving all segments of society."