What does BIPOC stand for?

BIPOC refers to Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color. Historically, POC, or People of Color, was used; the separate identifiers for Black and Indigenous were recently added to highlight the unique systemic inequities and discrimination that Black and Indigenous individuals and communities have experienced in the United States.

What is BIPOC Mental Health Month?

BIPOC Mental Health Month was founded in July 2008. Previously known as Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, the initiative aims to bring greater understanding and awareness to the unique experiences and challenges that BIPOC communities face related to mental health in the United States. Bebe Moore Campbell was a Black American author, journalist, teacher, and mental health advocate who worked diligently to provide greater mental health education and end the stigma around mental illness among BIPOC.

Why do we need it?

While anyone can experience struggles with their mental health, BIPOC experience systemic discrimination and inequity that can exacerbate existing mental health issues and cause mental health issues of their own. Put differently, all human beings experience the stressors of life: financial worries, relationship challenges, life changes, grief, and loss. However, BIPOC experiences those universal stressors of being human and the added stressors of systemic inequity – this can yield an exponentially negative effect on BIPOC mental health.

What makes this situation even more complex is the fact that the U.S. healthcare system is part and parcel of these larger systems of inequity: BIPOC have historically experienced inequitable and unethical health and mental health care in the United States (see: scientific racism used to justify slavery, Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Puerto Rico birth control clinical trials, forced spread of disease to Indigenous populations, disproportionate diagnoses of serious mental illness).

However, the impetus for BIPOC Mental Health Month is not only in the past. This year’s BIPOC Mental Health Month becomes especially relevant and necessary, coming on the heels of the recent Supreme Court decision, which reversed the inclusion of race in college admissions policies — effectively ending the 50+ year practice of affirmative action as we know it. This decision will decrease BIPOC representation in higher education and, subsequently, the U.S. workforce. Many BIPOC are struggling with what this means for their careers and livelihood and those of their family, friends, and larger communities.

Despite shouldering the extra burden of systemic oppression, the history of medical harm and mistreatment makes many BIPOC understandably reluctant to seek care when experiencing mental health issues. Over time, this reluctance has morphed into some deep stigmas around mental health and treatment-seeking in many communities of color. Now, given that social programs like affirmative action, designed to mitigate some of the harms of systemic inequity, are being disbanded — and the ensuing stress this creates for many BIPOC — a focus on BIPOC mental health is all the more necessary.

What is the BIPOC mental health experience like? 

While BIPOC are not a monolith and the following list does not capture every BIPOC experience, here are some common BIPOC mental health experiences and challenges to treatment seeking.

  • Silence around mental health issues in BIPOC communities and the resulting fear of seeking treatment: Compared with white people, BIPOC are significantly less likely to seek treatment for mental health issues; American Indians or Alaskan Natives are 75% as likely to utilize mental health services, Black or African Americans and Latinx people are half as likely, and Asian people are a quarter as likely.
  • Mental health issues manifest physically: Due to the silence around mental health issues, in many BIPOC communities, it can be common for mental health conditions to manifest as physical illness, such as stomachaches, headaches, or “nerves.” Without a culturally aware healthcare provider, who knows the right assessment questions to ask, these mental health issues can go undiagnosed – with futile attempts being made to treat only the physical symptoms, not the underlying mental health issue.
  • Turning to religious or community leaders or spaces: Many people in BIPOC communities will often turn to religious leaders or community spaces such as barber shops, beauty salons, or other community gathering places for mental health support. While these spaces are necessary and helpful for their own designated purposes, they are still not equipped with mental health professionals who are trained to address such issues.
  • Difficulty accessing care: Another key impact of systemic inequity on BIPOC is the lack of equal pay; this can impact many BIPOC individuals’ ability to obtain and pay for adequate, culturally aware mental health treatment.
  • Lack of diverse representation among healthcare providers: For the BIPOC who do overcome the stigma and fear of the U.S. healthcare system and who have the financial means to seek treatment, they are often then faced with a lack of diverse representation among providers and a lack of providers who look like them. Out of all therapists, Asian Americans comprise 11%; Latinx therapists comprise 8%; Black therapists comprise 4%.

BIPOC mental health month seeks to provide education about these negative impacts on BIPOC mental health and destigmatize negative mental health beliefs among communities of color so that BIPOC can get the support they need to live emotionally informed and mentally healthy lives.

What does BIPOC mental health mean in the workplace?

The workplace has been and continues to be an additional place of systemic inequity and discrimination for BIPOC. A 2021 SHRM study showed that 42% of Black people, 26% of Asian people, and 21% of Latino/Hispanic people experienced discriminatory treatment in the workplace due to their race and ethnicity over the last five years, compared with only 12% of white people.

Such experiences of racial trauma and microaggressions at work can negatively impact BIPOC mental and physical health. Specifically, BIPOC report feelings of anger, feeling excluded, feeling as if there’s no one at work to turn to for help, and feeling alone. These experiences can lead to a particular kind of exhaustion, overwhelm, and burnout for BIPOC in the workplace, which their white counterparts are not experiencing in the same way. SHRM found that such experiences lead to a decrease in productivity and an increase in absenteeism and attrition among BIPOC, at costs to companies in the billions.

How to support BIPOC mental health in the workplace? 

For Managers: Managers have a major impact on employee well-being, tied only with someone’s spouse, and have a greater impact than one’s doctor or therapist. They are uniquely positioned to support their people’s mental health. While many of the following suggestions can be used to support all employees, given the impacts of systemic inequity on BIPOC, utilizing these practices with your BIPOC employees can be especially meaningful:

  • Ask employees how they’re doing and listen to understand – not just to problem-solve. Acknowledge their efforts and contributions. Champion their growth. Let them know that you really see them and their humanity and that you care. A recent study shows that taking a coaching approach to managerial issues really works.
  • Learn and be empathetic to BIPOC mental health. Become aware of some of the ways that mental health issues can mask themselves among BIPOC (e.g., physical issues as mentioned above, fatigue, physical illness, or missing time from work etc.). Discuss it in a non-invasive way and point them in the direction of help. You might say something like:

“Sometimes when people [get angry, have a recurring illness, miss a lot of work – insert whatever you’ve observed in your employee], they might be struggling with their emotions or dealing with their mental health. I’m not sure if that’s what’s happening with you, and you’re not obligated to tell me anything you’re not comfortable with, but I’m always here to listen. And here’s a reminder of our company’s mental health resources…In the meantime, is there anything I can do to support you?”

  • Encourage rest and time off. This could mean No Meeting Fridays, opting for phone meetings rather than Zoom meetings, and occasionally offering that team members come in late or log off early. Flexibility at work is key to employee happiness and productivity.

For Leaders: Leadership determines whether a company is moving toward or away from equity and, subsequently, whether the workplace is helping or hurting BIPOC mental health. Here is what leadership can do.

  • Keep investing in DEI. There’s been a lot of rumblings lately that DEI is over. DEI isn’t dead! As long as we have diverse workplaces, we need DEI. Like any discipline, approaches to DEI will shift and change over time. Make sure your organization shifts and changes alongside it.
  • Reflect & model accountability. Research and reflect on how your organization may have benefited from opportunities that were denied to BIPOC or BIPOC-led businesses (e.g., opportunities to secure loans, build physical office buildings, gain clients and prestige etc.) or how your organization may have directly harmed BIPOC communities. Share your research and reflections and outline your commitment to righting wrongs via clear, actionable steps. And then put those steps into action. Make your action plan known and follow up publicly as you hit your milestones.
  • Show that BIPOC mental health matters. Connect with different BIPOC mental health associations such as the Association for Black Psychologists, National Latino Psychological Association, Asian American Psychological Association, American Arab, Middle Eastern, and North African Psychological Association, and Society of Indian Psychologists. Ask your employees what mental health topics they want more information on and engage guest speakers from these organizations in contracts with your company.
  • Show up as the Executive Sponsor for BIPOC mental health events. Your presence matters and makes events more meaningful. Show your people that BIPOC mental health matters to you.

Consider BIPOC Mental Health Month as a springboard or a starting off point. Let’s make BIPOC mental health matter all year round.

Need help supporting your employees? Let BHS help – contact us today!

Post Written by

Thrive Consultant, Guide+Thrive by BHS

Dr. Harrison is a licensed clinical psychologist who works from an ethic of liberation. In her private psychotherapy practice, she supports Silicon Valley professionals in beating burnout and reclaiming joy, vitality, and pleasure in daily life. In addition to therapy, she provides consultation and education in the areas of anti-oppression, equity, and inclusion and serves as a facilitator in the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Women in Management program.