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

The Hunstman Institute of Mental Health and the University of Utah Department of Education announced a new hire to study 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 Institute of Mental Health and the University of Utah Department of Education announced a new hire to study racial disparities in mental health services as part of a larger collaboration.

Racial disparities in health care have been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, with minorities experiencing the highest rates of coronavirus deaths and cases nationwide.

In April 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism a public health crisis. The declaration was later echoed by the Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who passed a joint resolution in July 2021.

Both the CDC and the Salt Lake City Council acknowledged that while the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted health care disparities, these 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 Chief Executive Administrator for Equity, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the Huntsman Institute for Mental Health.

Smith is 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 and navigating historically white spaces.

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

Mental health can be negatively affected following traumatic events. A University of Utah study found that black Americans “reported a higher number of days with poor mental health in weeks when two or more high-profile incidents of racial violence occurred and when national interest was higher.”


We don’t need another blue-ribbon commission to investigate a lot of things we already know and have discoveries about, but we need to take some action.

– William Smith


Psychological stress can lead to poor health outcomes, such as an increased risk of heart disease or diabetes.

“There is strong evidence that apart from a social and moral crisis, racism is an important public health problem that increases the 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 also be a personal source of stress.”

Smith’s position will work to implement needed programmatic and policy changes that address healthcare disparities and eliminate bias. Although it may be “too early for policy work”, conversations have begun with key stakeholders on how to address mental health in a multi-faceted way.

“We want to be a verb in this process. We want to get things done. We don’t need another blue-ribbon commission to look into a lot of things that we already know and have findings about, but we need to take some action,” Smith said. “Trying to embrace communities and find out what they need — not what we think they need, what they need — and then let’s do it.”

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Ashley Freed covers human services, minority communities and women’s issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting arts, culture and entertainment news. She graduated from the University of Arizona.

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