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Minorities, Autoimmune Disease and Mental Health

July is Minority Mental Health Month. It’s important to acknowledge the role mental health plays on minority groups across the country, including those living with autoimmune disease.

While data showing the prevalence of autoimmune disease among minority racial groups is sparse, we do know that select autoimmune diseases are higher in certain minority populations. Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis tend to be higher among minority groups. And we know that up to 50% of patients with autoimmune diseases also experience depression and anxiety that can further impair their quality of life.

Autoimmune patients as well as their families can feel stressed from navigating healthcare coverage and treatments, having to go to frequent medical appointments, and trying to balance their condition with other life responsibilities. Autoimmune patients often feel isolated and misunderstood and can grieve the lifestyle they had before their diagnosis. Depression commonly co-exists with autoimmune disease. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some symptoms of depression include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feeling hopeless or pessimistic
  • Feeling irritable, easily frustrated‚ or restless
  • Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling “slowed down”
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause that do not ease even with treatment
  • Suicide attempts or thoughts of death or suicide

The conversation surrounding mental health in the United States has continued to grow and expand in the last several years. Mental health should be viewed as important as physical health to break the stigma surrounding seeking help and create better funding, resources, and access to mental health services for all. However, racial and ethnic minority groups have faced struggles when trying to access mental health resources. Not only do racial and ethnic minority groups statistically visit a doctor’s office less frequently, but a higher percentage of them also do not have healthcare coverage to be able to afford and access good mental health services and treatments.

There is also limited minority representation among physicians and mental health providers. According to the AAMC, 56 percent of physicians are white, with Hispanic and Black physicians making up roughly a combined 11 percent. Racial and ethnic minorities not only have less access to healthcare and mental health resources, but they are often treated by physicians of different backgrounds who may feel they cannot relate to.

During Minority Mental Health Month, the Autoimmune Association encourages all minority populations – especially those living with autoimmune and chronic conditions – to prioritize mental health. We also support federal policies that facilitate improved access to mental healthcare for minorities.

Mental healthcare is an important key to improved patient outcomes. Research has shown that treating depression and chronic illness together can help people better manage both their depression and their chronic disease. As one example, a study revealed that with both cognitive behavioral therapy and prescription antidepressants, diabetes patients experienced reduced depression symptoms and improved glycemic control. The treatment of depression not only improved the patients’ mental and physical health, but also offered substantial financial savings from the reduced dependency on insulin.

The Autoimmune Association advocates for all patients and works to address health disparities as well as promote equity for medically underserved populations. We promote diversity in clinical trials and help provide access to resources to support the mental health for autoimmune patients. Please visit Mental Health America’s website for information on finding support groups and mental health resources, as well as other wellness tools.

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