SALT LAKE CITY — The Hunstman Mental Health Institute and University of Utah education department have announced a new hire to explore racial disparities in mental health services as a part of a larger collaboration.
Racial disparities in health services were illuminated during the COVID-19 pandemic — with minorities experiencing the highest rates of coronavirus deaths and case counts nationwide.
In April 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism a public health crisis. The declaration was later repeated by the Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who passed a joint resolution in July 2021.
Both the CDC and Salt Lake City Council acknowledged that while the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted health disparities, those disparities existed before the onset of the pandemic.
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 chief executive administrator for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion at Huntsman Mental Health Institute.
Smith has been nationally recognized 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 — people of color may experience while living in and navigating historically white spaces.
"We have to understand how these racial stresses are impacting people differently based upon their interlocking identities," said Smith.
Mental health can be negatively impacted following traumatic events. A study by the University of Utah found that Black Americans "reported a higher number of poor mental health days in weeks when two or more high publicity racial violence incidents occurred and when national interest was higher."
Psychological stress can lead to poor health outcomes, such as an elevated risk for heart disease or diabetes.
"There's strong evidence that in addition to being a social and moral crisis, racism is an important public health issue that increases risk of a range of diseases and mental health problems," said researcher David Chae. "The experiences of others in a racial group are shared and can be personal sources of stress, as well."
Smith's position will work to implement necessary programmatic changes and policies addressing health disparities and eliminating bias. While it may be "too soon for policy work," conversations with key stakeholders on how to address mental health in a multi-faceted 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 for, but we have to have some action," Smith said. "Trying to embrace the communities and find out what they need — not what we think they need, what do they need — and then let's make it happen."