The amount of Spanish-language mental health services in the U.S. has declined in recent years, according to a study published in Psychiatry Online. The study found that between 2014 and 2019, mental health services provided in Spanish to Latino communities dropped by 18% — or about 1,163 facilities.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the concept of health equity has been recognized as an increasingly crucial component of national conversations around racism. While the healthcare industry, and the pharma sector specifically, has begun to tackle health disparities — and boost diversity and inclusion — the system is still lacking.

George Pro, a behavioral health services researcher who worked on the study, said the motivation was to document national trends that would help inform larger study designs and public health programs moving forward.

“We are all interested in promoting equitable access to mental health services and focusing on making health systems work for everybody,” Pro said. “That means targeting populations that experience the most barriers to behavioral healthcare utilization.”

According to the study, the key barriers for Latino and Spanish-speaking populations are less access, language discordance between providers and patients, as well as insurance status and ability to pay for treatment top the list.

“In the paper, we point out that the total number of all specialty mental health providers decreased by 5% between 2014 and 2019,” Pro explained. “A key takeaway is that facilities that offered Spanish decreased by 22%, or at a much faster rate. The picture is not good in general, but disproportionately worse for Hispanic individuals in need of treatment.”

The study, released during National Mental Health Awareness Month, doesn’t include data from the COVID-19 pandemic period — which saw national rates of mental illness like depression and anxiety sharply increase.

Those behavioral health issues were even worse among the Latino community. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 40% of Latino adults reported depression symptoms during the pandemic, compared to 25% of their white non-Hispanic counterparts.

Pro noted that more data will be needed to better understand whether mental health services in Spanish improved during that period.

“One silver lining of the pandemic is that we are talking publicly about mental health more now as a country, although of course there is still lots of work to be done,” Pro said. “But on the other hand, the pandemic has illuminated health disparities and brought health equity closer to the front of our national discourse.”

In the long-term, Pro said encouraging Latino and Spanish-speaking students to pursue higher education in the field of behavioral health may help improve the current mental health provider shortages.

In the short term, Pro said that healthcare organizations must provide as many resources as possible to ease the challenges faced by the community so that everyone who needs mental health care receives it. 

“Prevention, screening, and culturally responsive treatment are fundamental pieces of public health but they continue to be systematically denied to Hispanic, African American, and poor populations. Reassessing who our healthcare system is for is a place to start,” he said.