Minority children and young adults are far less likely to get mental health treatment than their white counterparts, a new study shows.
Despite having comparable rates of mental health issues, black and Hispanic children and young adults receive only about half as much mental health treatment as their white peers.
That's according to a study published Friday in the International Journal of Health Services.
Researchers concluded that "psychiatric and behavioral problems among minority youth often result in school punishment or incarceration, but rarely mental health care."
Dr. Lyndonna Marrast, currently with the Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine in New York, led the research.
"It has become increasingly clear that minorities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and underrepresented in the receipt of mental health care," she said. "We need to look closely at how equitably our health care institutions are serving all segments of society."
The study examined data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. The data, which covered children as well as young adults aged 18 to 34, spanned all 50 U.S. states between 2006 to 2012.
Among the key findings, black and Hispanic children made 37 percent and 49 percent fewer visits to psychiatrists and 47 percent and 58 percent fewer visits to any mental health professional, respectively, when compared with whites.
For young adults, outpatient mental health services were provided three times more frequently to whites than blacks and Hispanics, the study showed.
Researchers also found the substance abuse counseling rate to be "strikingly low" for black young adults. It was about one-seventh that of whites.
Overall rates of mental health care visits were found to be especially low for black and Hispanic young men, who also face the highest risk of incarceration.
Although poor children and young adults had lower rates of receiving mental health care, "differences in income and insurance did not account for the racial/ethnic disparities" in treatment, according to the study.
Minority children and young adults with psychiatric or behavioral issues often face school punishment or incarceration rather than referral for mental health treatment, the researchers noted.
"Minority kids don't get help when they're in trouble. Instead they get expelled or jailed," said report co-author Dr. Steffie Woolhandler. "But punishing people for mental illness or addiction is both inhumane and ineffective. The lack of care for minority youth is the real crime."
Woolhandler and fellow report co-author Dr. David Himmelstein are professors at Hunter College, a school in the City University of New York system, and lecturers at Harvard Medical School.
Himmelstein and Woolhandler co-founded the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), which advocates for a nationwide single-payer health care system. PNHP "played no role in financing or otherwise supporting the study," according to the group.