The study, titled “Sorry, I’m Not Accepting New Patients,” was published in the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Princeton University doctoral candidate and study author Heather Kugelmass discovered that therapists regularly discriminate against prospective patients whom they perceive to be black and/or working-class.
Kugelmass hired actors to call therapists and read scripts requesting an appointment in a voicemail. Each actor claimed that they were feeling sad and had the necessary insurance to cover the cost of the appointment. Some scripts included particular racial markers like names. For example, one caller would identify herself as Amy Roberts, a typically white name, while another would say that her name was Latoya Jackson, meant to signify a black individual.
The study showed that of the 320 psychotherapists randomly selected and contacted, 30% were less likely to return a call from a middle-class black woman. As many as 60% of middle-class black men were likely to have their calls returned. Only 8% of black working-class individuals received return phone calls.
The implications of these findings are especially troubling considering the cultural barriers that already exist for ethnic minorities seeking therapy. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, although African Americans suffer from major mental health disorders at comparable rates to their white counterparts, only about one-quarter of them actually seek mental health care, compared to 40% of whites.
However, African Americans are not immune to the same mental health issues that plague so many people of all races and ethnicities. Depression and PTSD are particularly common among African Americans, and stress affects all adults at some point in their lives. Relationships are the fourth most common cause of stress in the United States, and statistics show that African American couples generally have a higher average divorce rate than other racial and ethnic groups.
Kugelmass was surprised by the severity of the results. She said, “Although I expected to find racial and class-based disparities, the magnitude of the discrimination working-class therapy seekers faced exceeded my grimmest expectations.”
The psychotherapy profession is overwhelmingly white with only 1.5% of the American Psychological Association’s members being black.