Clin Psychiatry. 2015; 76(3):279-283.
“Cultural Background and Barriers to Mental Health Care for African American Adults”
Rostain, A.L., Ramsay, J.R., Waite, R.

This article delineates key patient and provider cultural biases that interfere with access to care for African American Adults with ADHD. It provides an important framework for understanding how these biases come about and what clinicians can do to address them. A brief review of the relationship between psychiatry and African Americans points out that beginning with slavery and continuing through the Tuskegee experiment, there is a legacy of racism in American medicine that influences the way patients view health care providers (and vice versa).

For instance, drapetomania was a clinical diagnosis given to slaves who demonstrated resistance to the institution by running away, refusing to follow rules, destroying property and fighting the plantation slave owners. In this fashion, psychiatry played an important role in supporting racism and racist beliefs. Similar analogies can be made to the ways that psychiatry classified homosexuality as a mental illness.


The point of this historical review is to underscore the longstanding mistrust that exists within the African American community toward medicine in general and psychiatry in particular. Add to this, the stigma associated with mental illness and substance abuse, it becomes easier to understand why many African American adults fail to seek treatment for disorders like ADHD.

The article goes on to discuss barriers to obtaining mental health treatment including patient factors (e.g. low income, lack of health insurance, fear and other negative attitudes) and health care system factors (e.g. limited access to culturally and technically competent providers and provider biases). Without question, higher rates of poverty and of lack of insurance among the minority population leads to markedly reduced access to care. The article points out that whereas rates of adequate mental health treatment among whites is 33%, the figure drops to 12% for African Americans. Moreover. white 
children are twice as likely to receive ADHD medication as African American children. Cultural biases among providers may lead them to be insufficiently attuned to the presence of ADHD in adult patients, ascribing the symptoms of ADHD, such as inattention, restlessness and disorganization either to personal failing (e.g. lack of self-discipline) or to environmental factors (e.g. low SES, lack of education) rather than to the influence of ADHD.

The paper concludes with practical recommendations for clinicians to address these barriers including providing accurate science based information, listening and being sensitive to stigmatizing experiences that African American patients may have encountered, and recognizing the deleterious effects of conscious and unconscious biases among well-meaning providers.



Stephen_Faraone_PhD_ADHD_in_AdultsEditor’s Note:  It is important to read the FULL Blog post.

Suicide is one of the most feared outcomes of any psychiatric condition.  Although its association with depression is well known, a small but growing research literature shows that ADHD is also a risk factor for suicidality.  

Suicide is difficult to study. Because it is relatively rare, large samples of patients are needed to make definitive statements.  Studies of suicide and ADHD must also consider the possibility that medications might elevate that risk. 

For example, the FDA placed a black box warning on atomoxetine because that ADHD medication had been shown to increase suicidal risk in youth.   A recent study of 37,936 patients with ADHD now provides much insight into these issues (Chen, Q., Sjolander, A., Runeson, B., D’Onofrio, B. M., Lichtenstein, P. & Larsson, H. (2014). Drug treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and suicidal behaviour: register based study. BMJ 348, g3769.).    In Sweden, such large studies are possible because researchers have computerized medical registers that describe the disorders and treatments of all people in Sweden.  Among 37,936 patients with ADHD, 7019 suicide attempts or completed suicides occurred during 150,721 person years of follow-up.  This indicates that, in any given year, the risk for a suicidal event is about 5%. 


Ask the ADHD Experts  Prescribing ADHD Medications

For ADHD patients, the risk for a suicide event is about 30% greater than for non-ADHD patients.  Among the ADHD patients who attempted or completed suicide,the risk was increased for those who had also been diagnosed with a mood disorder, conduct disorder, substance abuse or borderline personality.  This is not surprising; the most serious and complicated cases of ADHD are those that have the greatest risk for suicidal events.  

The effects of medication were less clear.   The risk for suicide events was greater for ADHD patients who had been treated with non-stimulant medication compared with those who had not been treated with non-stimulant medication.  A similar comparison showed no effect of stimulant medications. 

This first analysis suffers from the fact that the probability of receiving medication increases with the severity of the disorder.  To address this problem, the researchers limited the analyses to ADHD patients who had had some medication treatment and then compared suicidal risk between periods of medication treatment and periods of no medication treatment.  This analysis found no increased risk for suicide from non-stimulant medications and, more importantly, found that for patients treated with stimulants, the risk for suicide was lower when they were taking stimulant medications.  This protective effect of stimulant medication provides further evidence of the long-term effects of stimulant medications which have also been shown to lower the risks for traffic accidents, criminality, smoking and other substance use disorders.