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Mental Health Disparities for Black People in America: Provider Bias

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in the experiences of minority groups or the disparities and oppression they face every day. I am a counselor and this is the result of my personal research on the subject in hopes to educate and help others with the information I find.

Another important subject of disparity for Black Americans and many minority individuals in America is bias. In this specific case, provider bias of mental health providers leads to the disparities in treatment that we see in the black community.

Bias is a prejudice in favor of or against a thing, person, or group compared with another that is usually considered to be unfair for one side or the other (Whelan, 2018). A bias can be held by and individual, a group, an institution, or even an entire country and can have both a negative and a positive impact on those involved. An example of institutional bias is the list of socioeconomic disparities mentioned in the previous post in which a country consistently benefits a certain race (usually white Americans) more than other races (usually persons of color) which leads to disparities in income, social status, employment, and prestige for that race as a whole.

One reason bias is so prevalent in the mental health field is because the percentage of mental health workers that are also black is very low.

Conscious vs Unconscious Bias

Conscious bias is when a person consciously decides to make a difference between two people, groups, or things (Georgetown University, 2019). This type of bias is typically characterized by negative behavior such as physical abuse or verbal harassment. More subtle examples of this are behaviors such as exclusion or microaggressions against others due to a bias that a person has consciously chosen.

Unconscious bias is much more common and is, at times, incompatible with a person’s conscious values. An unconscious bias is not purposeful and happens when someone is not really thinking about what they’re doing/saying (University of California, 2018). These types of biases can be particularly harmful because they happen without the person’s knowledge and often do not reflect how they truly feel. Unconscious biases are typically built through someone’s upbringing, their social exposure, and their unconscious beliefs based on, at times, one-time occurrences and nothing more. For example, someone who was raised in a mono-cultural area and was not exposed to other cultures often have inaccurate beliefs about other cultures that, although likely are not meant to be discriminatory or prejudice, are inaccurate and often stereotypical. A person who was raised with these beliefs does not mean them in offense, but they must be responsible for checking their own unconscious biases before they affect the people around them.

Discrimination vs Prejudice

Discrimination is a behavior or action, usually negative, toward an individual or group based on a characteristic such as sex, race, social class, religion, etc (McLeod, 2008).

Example: A provider refuses to see someone based on their race or insists on giving them specific types of treatment because of their race without using an individualistic approach.

Prejudice is an unjustified or incorrect attitude, usually negative, toward an individual based solely on their membership of a social group (McLeod, 2008).

Example: A provider assumes that a black client lives in the “hood” and was raised in poverty or is violent because of their race and treats them accordingly without taking into account the facts in front of them.

The main difference between discrimination and prejudice is that discrimination is treating people differently or acting differently toward them based on characteristics such as the aforementioned (race, sex, etc.) while prejudice is an unjust attitude toward a person based on their social group exclusively. Both can be negative, but prejudice is almost always negative for at least one of the parties involved while discrimination can have a neutral or positive impact in some cases.

The Point

Both discrimination and prejudice are still things that happen in the United States daily. They happen on personal levels, community levels, and in private practice. Provider bias is one of the main reasons for racial disparities in mental health in America. These biases can even be based on circumstantial evidence such as statistics that lead a provider to assume that because a client is part of a certain race that they adhere to the stereotype and/or statistics and treat them as such. There can even be bias due to overcompensation such as a white provider feeling “bad” for black clients due to the poor treatment and oppression the race has undergone and treating them differently due to these unconscious biases stemmed from their shame related to their privilege. To decrease the impact of provider bias on racial disparities in mental health, all mental health providers, regardless of race, have to check their own biases (unconscious and conscious) as well as their own levels of discrimination and prejudice and be profession, compassionate, and empathetic with every client while treating them as individuals rather than just another statistic.

There are disparities for Black Americans in America.


McLeod, S. A. (2008). Prejudice and discrimination. Simply Psychology.

Papillion, K. (2020). Georgetown University National Center for Cultural Competency.

University of California. (2020). Unconscious bias. UC San Francisco Office of Diversity and Outreach.

Whelan, M. (2018). Conscious and unconscious bias. Unleashed Potential.


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