How does race impact mental health? New U. hire to explore, bridge disparities

The Huntsman Mental Health Institute and the University of Utah Department of Education announced a new hire to explore racial disparities in mental health services as part of a broader collaboration. (Steve Griffin, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Huntsman Mental Health Institute and the University of Utah Department of Education announced a new hire to explore racial disparities in mental health services as part of a broader collaboration.

Racial disparities in health services have come to light during the COVID-19 pandemic – with minorities experiencing the highest rates of coronavirus deaths and caseloads nationwide.

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

The CDC and the Salt Lake City Council have recognized that while the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted health disparities, those 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 administrator for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

Smith has been nationally recognized for his research on “racial combat fatigue”, a term he coined in 2003. The term is used to describe psychophysiological symptoms – from high blood pressure to anxiety , frustration, shock, anger and depression – people of color can experience living and navigating historically white spaces.

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

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


We don’t need another blue committee to study a lot of things that we already know and have conclusions about, but we need to take action.

–William Smith


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

“There is strong evidence that in addition to being a social and moral crisis, racism is a significant public health issue that increases the risk of various diseases and mental health conditions,” said researcher David Chae. “The experiences of other members of a racial group are shared and can also be personal sources of stress.”

Smith’s position will work to implement the programmatic and policy changes needed to address health disparities and eliminate stigma. While it may be “too early for policy work,” conversations with key stakeholders about how to approach mental health in a multidimensional 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 conclusions about, but we need to act,” 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.”

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

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