What impact does race have on mental health? New U. hire to explore, address disparities

 What impact does race have on mental health? New U. hire to explore, address disparities


The Hunstman Mental Health Institute and the University of Utah’s education department announced a new hire to examine 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 Mental Health Institute and the University of Utah’s education department have announced a new hire to examine racial disparities in mental health services as part of a larger collaboration.

Racial disparities in health services have come to light 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 declaration was soon reiterated by the Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who passed a joint resolution in July 2021.

The CDC and Salt Lake City Council acknowledge that while the COVID-19 pandemic has 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 appointed as the chief executive officer for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

Smith is nationally recognized for his research on “racial war 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 be experienced while living and navigating the white spaces of history.

“We need to understand how these racial tensions affect people differently based on their interconnected identities,” Smith said.

Mental health can be negatively affected after traumatic events. A University of Utah study found that Black Americans “reported a higher number of poor mental health days in weeks when there were two or more highly publicized incidents of racial violence happened and when the national interest is higher.”


We don’t need another blue ribbon committee to study the many things we already know and have found out but we need to take action.

—William Smith


Psychological stress can lead to poor health outcomes, such as a high 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 various diseases and mental health problems,” said researcher David Chae. “The experiences of others in a racial group are shared and can also be a personal source of stress.”

Smith’s position will work to implement necessary program changes and policies that address health disparities and eliminate bias. Although it may be “too soon for policy work,” conversations among key stakeholders about how to address mental health in a multifaceted way have begun.

“We want to be a verb in this 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 and have findings, but we need to take action,” Smith said. “Trying to embrace the communities and find out what they need — not what we think they need, what they need — and then we’ll do it.”

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Ashley Fredde covers human services, minority communities and women’s issues for KSL.com. He also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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