The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) partnered with the African American Behavioral Health-Center of Excellence (AABH-COE) at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia to host a roundtable event on the mental health of students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The event was held on April 21, 2022, at the Morehouse School of Medicine, which is part of the Atlanta University Center, the oldest and largest consortium of Black higher education in the world. Students and administrators from 25 HBCUs across the country participated in the discussion.
The roundtable was attended by Dr. Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon, Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use and Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), with welcoming remarks provided by Dr. Valarie Montgomery-Rice, President of Morehouse School of Medicine.
It was moderated by HHS Regional Director Antrell Tyson, Esq. (Region 4: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia), Regional Director Sima Ladjevardian, J.D. (remotely) (Region 6: Texas, New Mexico, Florida, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana), and Dr. Dawn Tyus, Principal Investigator of the African American Behavioral Health-Center of Excellence (AABH-COE), which is located at the Morehouse School of Medicine and funded by SAMHSA. The roundtable also featured administrators and counselors from both HHS regions, including Paul Quinn College (Dallas. TX), Dillard University (New Orleans, LA), Fort Valley State University (Fort Valley, GA), as well as Clark Atlanta University and the Morehouse School of Medicine (Atlanta, GA).
This roundtable event was part of an HHS-wide initiative to tackle the nation’s mental health crisis and is part of HHS’s National Tour to Strengthen Mental Health. Following President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address on March 1, 2022, Secretary Xavier Becerra and HHS leaders kicked off the National Tour to Strengthen Mental Health to hear directly from Americans across the country about the behavioral health challenges they are facing and engage with local leaders on innovative ways to strengthen the mental health and crisis care system in our communities. More information on the National Tour to Strengthen Mental Health is available at HHS.gov/HHSTour.
According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) data, almost 95% of Black people in the U.S. received no treatment for a substance use challenge and 63% received no treatment for their mental illness, and access was almost non-existent for those with co-occurring challenges. Assistant Secretary Dr. Delphin-Rittmon stressed the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to strengthening the emotional wellness of our country. This past year, the Administration invested an historic $7 billion into our country’s mental health and substance use systems, in the form of block grants to states and territories to provide more comprehensive mental health and addiction services.
Some of the mental health stressors emphasized during the roundtable conversation included an increase in suicide and the lasting impacts of childhood trauma. Other behavioral health staff noted that many students battle with loneliness and isolation and more.
Assistant Secretary Dr. Delphin-Rittmon encouraged continued dialogue of the challenges faced by students and administrators as a significant first step towards recognizing mental health vulnerabilities.
The roundtable discussion, hosted by HHS, SAMHSA, and the Morehouse School of Medicine, had diverse participation in-person and virtually from students, administrators, and behavioral health specialists at HBCUs and non-HBCU institutions, including:
Morehouse School of Medicine (host)
Albany State University
Alcorn State University
Charles R. Drew University
Clark Atlanta University
Fayetteville State University
Fort Valley State University
Jackson State University
Morehouse College/Candler School of Theology
Norfolk State University
North Carolina A&T State University
Paul Quinn College
Savannah State University
Southwestern Christian College
Texas Southern University
University of Texas
Our Lady of the Lake University
University of Houston
University of Maryland
University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law
Below are Assistant Secretary Dr. Delphin-Rittmon’s opening remarks, as prepared for delivery:
Thank you so much. And, good morning, everyone. I bring greetings from Secretary Becerra, who is unable to be here today.
Since 2002, we have celebrated National Minority Health Month every April, and asked organizations to build awareness about the burden of premature death and illness experienced by people from minority groups and take action through health education, early detection, and control of disease complications. I’m honored to be here today to celebrate National Minority Health Month with you. Today’s discussion on the mental health crisis and how it disproportionally impacts communities of color is crucial, and I applaud our stellar panelists for coming together on this important topic.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen people with mental illness experiencing worsening mental health problems and associated symptoms, such as thoughts of suicide. Others developed new mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder.
In addition to COVID 19, civil unrest, cost of living increases, social media and other factors have contributed to our nations’ mental health crisis. We know the past few years have been difficult for many people in our country, particularly for communities of color.
I often rely on data to underscore that mental health challenges are real and especially impacting African American communities. According to the CDC, we know that Blacks experienced feelings of sadness at rates over 1.5 times greater than white populations. We also know that both Black male and female high schoolers had higher rates of suicidal ideation than white high schoolers. And from SAMHSA data, we know that almost 95% of African American received no treatment for their substance use challenge and 63% received no treatment for their mental illness, and access was almost non-existent for those with co-occurring disorders.
This Administration has shown a strong commitment to the emotional wellness of our country. This past year, the Biden-Harris Administration invested over an historic $7 billion into our country’s mental health and substance use systems, in the form of block grants to states and territories to provide more comprehensive mental health and addiction services.
And at last month’s State of the Union address, President Biden announced his Strategy to Address Our National Mental Health Crisis. This “Unity Agenda” is framed around three elements: strengthen system capacity; connect more Americans to care; and create a continuum of support, with the goal of “transforming our health and social services infrastructure to address mental health holistically and equitably.
Two weeks after President Biden outlined the Unity Agenda for the nation, SAMHSA made dramatic increases in funding to expand the availability of certified community behavioral health clinics, or CCBHCs, across the nation. CCBHCs are evidence-based mental health and substance use programs that provide essential behavioral health services such as 24/7 crisis services, screening, and case management. These clinics are a crucial access point to mental health and substance use disorders, and are an important pathway to care for vulnerable communities that otherwise lack access to such services.
We are working to transition the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline from 1-800-273-TALK to an easy-to-remember, three-digit number: 988. By contacting 988, users will be connected to care and support for anyone experiencing distress – whether that is thoughts of suicide, mental health or substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress. We expect the formal launch of 988 this July.
SAMHSA has a number of long-term partnership with HBCUs. For example, Albany State University is part of our Center for Mental Health Services’ Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention grant program. The purpose of the program is to develop a comprehensive, collaborative, well-coordinated, and evidence-based approach to reduce the adverse consequences of serious mental illness and substance use challenges, including suicidal behavior, substance-related injuries, and school failure.
And, our HBCU Center for Excellence in Behavioral Health was awarded to Clark Atlanta University in Georgia. The purpose of this Center is to recruit students to careers in the behavioral health field to address mental and substance use disorders, provide training that can lead to careers in the behavioral health field, and/or prepare students for obtaining advanced degrees in the behavioral health field.
When we speak about recruiting and training a more diverse workforce, I would be remiss in not mentioning the Minority Fellowship Program (MFP). The MFP program, of which I’m a proud alum, aims to improve behavioral health care outcomes for racial and ethnic populations by growing the number of racial and ethnic minorities in the nation’s behavioral health workforce. The program also seeks to train and better prepare behavioral health practitioners to more effectively treat and serve people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
I hope you can see how committed SAMHSA is to tackling health disparities and keeping equity at the core of everything we do, which includes making sure every person in this country has equitable opportunities to access needed mental health and substance use services.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. I look forward to today’s panel and thank our panelists again for being here today to share their stories. Thank you!