The U.S. is experiencing a mental health crisis. The prevalence of depression symptoms in U.S. adults is three times higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and rates of anxiety have risen as well. Along with worries about COVID-19, other factors negatively impacting the nation’s mental health include polarized politics, toxic social media, racial inequality and economic pressures. Individuals and families are understandably fraying, especially in our historically marginalized communities.
This mental health crisis has exacerbated what was already a shortage of skilled care providers. It has also highlighted the need to diversify the mental health care workforce. For example, Black psychologists represent only four percent of the total number practicing in the U.S. even though Black Americans represent 13 percent of the nation’s population. According to a 2020 study from Penn Medicine, patients who shared the same racial or ethnic background as their care provider were more likely to give the maximum patient rating score.
As we mark July as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, Kaiser Permanente is helping to address the shortage of mental health practitioners through its Mental Health Scholars Academy (MHSA). MHSA provides support for individuals – especially those from ethnically diverse backgrounds – to pursue careers in mental health. MHSA partners with eight academic institutions throughout California that offer degree programs in counseling, social work or psychology for working professionals. Kaiser Permanente Employees in the program who achieve admission at the participating schools receive 75% tuition assistance, as well a mentoring and networking opportunities.
By encouraging bilingual and diverse applicants, Kaiser Permanente is addressing gaps in linguistic, ethnic and minority representation in the mental health workforce. The current MHSA cohorts include 245 employees, 78% of whom are people of color and 46% are bilingual. MHSA’s goal is to graduate over 1,000 individuals through this program by 2028. By increasing the number of diverse providers, we can also counter the stigma that communities of color too often associate with mental illness. Patients are likely to be more open about their mental health concerns when cared for by someone they can trust more readily, and who can understand the cultural influences related to mental health illness and emotional wellness.
Kia Yang’s story is an example of the program’s ability to offer people with diverse backgrounds the opportunity to connect with their community while advancing their health care career. Yang is a patient relations coordinator at the Kaiser Permanente Sacramento Medical Center working toward becoming a therapist with a master’s degree in social work at University of Massachusetts Global. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Yang has family members who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. She has seen firsthand the impact of silence as a response to trauma.
“In the Hmong community, as with many Asian communities, there is little to no trust in health care among the elderly,” Yang said. “They believe they are being probed for research only and often refuse to seek adequate care in a timely manner. I want to help close the gap by raising awareness and building trust.”
We believe that MHSA is a model that can be recreated in other health systems and organizations as part of what must be an industry-wide effort to address the shortage of mental health care providers, especially those from diverse backgrounds.
Culturally responsive care is essential for achieving the total health that is at the core of Kaiser Permanente’s mission. By expanding access to advanced mental health care training for underrepresented individuals, we can empower people to help communities that have been underserved for far too long.
Janet A. Liang is Executive Vice President, Group President and Chief Operating Officer, Care Delivery for Kaiser Permanente and Chair-Elect for the Institute for Diversity and Health Equity Leadership Council.