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.