Mental Health Care Disparities Persist for Black and Latino Children

Release Date: June 21, 2012 | By Katherine Kahn, Contributing Writer
Research Source: Health Services Research


  • Despite national initiatives to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in mental health care, black and Latino children continue to use less mental health care services than white children.
  • Between 2002 and 2007, the gap in spending for mental health care between Latino and white children increased.
  • Among children identified as needing mental health care, whites were approximately twice as likely as blacks and Latinos to initiate care.
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Disparities in the use of mental health services, including outpatient care and psychotropic drug prescriptions, persist for black and Latino children, reports a new study in Health Services Research.

“Children’s mental illness is very predictive of poor outcomes later in life—socially, educationally, income-wise and employment-wise,” said lead author Benjamin Lê Cook, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Center for Multicultural Mental Health Research at the Cambridge Health Alliance and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “There is a real need to understand why there are these big differences in mental health care for kids.”

Cook and his colleagues looked at data from a nationally representative sample of over 30,000 youth ages 5 to 21 from the 2002-2003 and the 2006-2007 Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys (MEPS). They analyzed the data for the use of outpatient mental health care, use of psychiatric drugs and overall mental health care.

“About 10 percent of white youth are using mental health care compared to about half that percentage—between 4 and 5 percent—of black and Latino youth using mental health care.” That 2-to-1, white-to-minority ratio is a giant disparity compared to other areas of health care,” Cook said.

Researchers also found that this disparity didn’t change between the two time periods studied.  In addition, while money spent for mental health care increased for white children between 2002-2003 and 2006-2007, it decreased significantly for Latino children. “Even among those who are in care, it looks like the amount of dollars that the system is spending on Latino users relative to white users is shrinking,” Cook said.

Marc Atkins, Ph.D., from the Institute of Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago commented, “What’s difficult to tease out is how much of the lack of [minority children’s] access to care reflects the lack of availability of quality mental health care or lack of their family’s confidence that these services are going to be helpful. Some of that’s related to stigma about mental health care and some of that’s related to contentious relationships these families may have with social service systems.”

Atkins said research shows that when social service systems use strategies to engage these families and work to overcome barriers of stigma and trust, access to mental health care increases.

Cook commented that having health insurance coverage is one of the important predictors of mental health care use. “It’s pretty clear that if we got people better insurance and insured the uninsured, that would help a lot in reducing disparities,” he said.

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Health Services Research is the official journal of the Academy Health and is published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. on behalf of the Health Research and Educational Trust. For information, contact Jennifer Shaw, HSR Business Manager at (312) 422-2646 or [email protected]. HSR is available online at

Cook BL, Barry CL, Busch SH. 2012. Racial/ethnic disparity trends in children’s mental health care access and expenditures from 2002 to 2007. Health Services Research. In press.

Tags for this article:
Health Disparities   Mental Health   Latino and Hispanic Health   African-American Health  

Comments on this article
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Mrs. Nunez says
July 2, 2012 at 12:57 PM

I would be curious to know if there has been a study of how many Spanish Spkg therapists are available for these latino children. Does our mental health system actually has the necessary resources throughout our country to bring in latino families into treatment?

Mrs. Castillo says
July 2, 2012 at 5:03 PM

Thank you for your question, Mrs. Nunez. I have done some on-line searching myself, looking to see if there are any Spanish speaking therapists or how many university programs are available to train Spanish-speaking therapists but haven't had much success. Perhaps someone else will have more information for us.

Isabel Benavides says
December 28, 2012 at 1:30 PM

Having a book published in 2013 called "A life of great expectations" - the story is about a Hispanic Family over three generations who encounter mentall illness. From the early 1900s - family believes the matriarch has turned to a witch to find relief from "it" and ends up dying from an attempted suicide attempt. The next generation leaves his country in believing he distance will remove the stain. On his journey in the new country with his wife and three young children he moves to Detroit, Michigan, where his wife begins to show signs of mental illness, but in denial until his daughter at the age of 15 to also begin to show signs of mental illness. He is overwhelmed but he learned the stigma would not take his childs life. So he is reminded of the words his mother told him before she died. She knew he would have a life of great expectations. His children became very accomplished and to this day he thanks his mother for her bravery. The book weaves superstition, hispanic culture, identity, color of skin and how a young boy makes his long journey and by finally telling his story he is finally set free.
Having several generations of Mental health illnesses is a great challenge but in the midst of it people find the courage and love to come to terms and seek help. I am going to start booking speaking engagements on the topics of families with generational mental health diseases and how having courage to have pride in progress regardless of how small it may be. Thanks.