The Hunstman Institute of Mental Health and the University of Utah’s education department have announced a new hire to explore racial disparities in mental health services as part of a larger collaboration. (Steve Griffin, Deseret News)
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SALT LAKE CITY — The Hunstman Institute of Mental Health and the University of Utah’s education department have announced a new hire to explore racial disparities in mental health services as part of a larger collaboration.
Racial disparities in health care were highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic — with minorities experiencing the highest coronavirus death rates and case counts nationwide.
In April 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism a public health crisis. The statement was later reiterated by the Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who passed a joint resolution in July 2021.
Both the CDC and the Salt Lake City Council acknowledged that while the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted health disparities, those disparities existed before the pandemic began.
In an effort to address and deepen understanding of race as a factor in mental health services and research, William Smith has been named chief executive administrator for equity, equity, diversity and inclusion at the Huntsman Institute of Mental Health.
Smith is nationally recognized for his research on “racial battle fatigue,” a term he coined in 2003. The term is used to describe psychophysiological symptoms—from high blood pressure to anxiety, frustration, shock, anger and depression—people of color can experience while living and navigating historically white spaces.
“We need to understand how these racial stresses are affecting people differently based on their interconnected identities,” Smith said.
Mental health can be negatively affected after traumatic events. A study from the University of Utah found that black Americans “reported a greater number of days of poor mental health in weeks when two or more high-profile incidents of racial violence occurred and when national interest was highest.”
We don’t need another blue ribbon committee to study a lot of things we already know about and have findings, but we need to take some action.
Psychological stress can lead to poor health outcomes, such as a higher risk of heart disease or diabetes.
“There is strong evidence that in addition to being a social and moral crisis, racism is an important public health issue that increases the risk of a variety of illnesses and mental health problems,” said researcher David Chae. “The experiences of others in a racial group are shared and can also be personal sources of stress.”
Smith’s position will work to implement necessary programmatic changes and policies that address health disparities and eliminate bias. While it may be “too soon for policy work”, conversations with key stakeholders about how to address mental health in a multifaceted way have begun.
“We want to be a part of the process. We want to get things done. We don’t need another blue-ribbon committee to study a lot of things that we already know about and have findings, but we have to some action.” Smith said. “To try to embrace communities and find out what they need — not what we think they need, what they need — and then let’s make it happen.”