SALT LAKE CITY — The Hunstman Institute of Mental Health and the University of Utah’s Department of Education have announced the hiring of a new staff member to study racial disparities in mental health services as part of a broader collaboration.
Racial disparities in health care services have been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, with minorities reporting the highest rates of coronavirus deaths and cases nationwide.
In April 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism a public health crisis. The declaration was later echoed 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 has highlighted health disparities, these disparities existed before the pandemic began.
In an attempt to examine 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 for Mental Health.
Smith has gained national recognition for his research on “racial battle fatigue,” a term he coined in 2003. The term is used to describe the psychophysiological symptoms – from high blood pressure to anxiety, frustration, shock, anger and depression – that people of color may experience while living and moving through historically white spaces.
“We need to understand how these racial stresses affect people differently based on their interconnected identities,” Smith said.
After traumatic events, mental health can be negatively affected. Research The University of Utah found that black Americans “reported more days with poor mental health in weeks when there were two or more high-profile incidents of racial violence and when national interest was highest.”
Psychological stress can lead to poor health, such as an increased risk of heart disease or diabetes.
“There is compelling evidence that, in addition to being a social and moral crisis, racism is an important public health problem that increases the risk of a number of diseases and mental health problems,” said researcher David Che. “The experience of others in a racial group is shared and can also be a personal source of stress.”
Smith’s position will work to implement necessary programmatic and policy changes aimed at addressing health disparities and addressing bias. While it may be “too early for policy work,” conversations have begun with key stakeholders about how to address mental health issues in a multilateral fashion.
“We want to be a verb in this process. We want to finish. We don’t need another blue-ribbon committee to study a lot of things that we already know and have conclusions about, but we have to act,” Smith said. “Trying to reach out to communities and find out what they need is not what we we think they need, and what they need, and then let’s do it.”