Racism: A Mental Health Issue D. Clemons, J. A. Janssen, K. Pakieser-Reed, J. Pitzer, and S. Strachniak Background

Racism: A Mental Health Issue D. Clemons, J. A. Janssen, K. Pakieser-Reed, J. Pitzer, and S. Strachniak Background

A Mexican American male (father of two children, married, intact family) was accused of molesting a young “white” girl. The incident occurred in Harvest City. The allegation was publicized in the local paper. A group of Anglo males gathered outside the Mexican American’s home and stoned it. Two Anglos were arrested for ethnic intimidation. The charge against the Mexican American male was dropped as a false charge, without publicity.

The local newspaper’s editorial declared the incident was racist in nature and stated that the community cannot “sweep [it] under the carpet.” Local church leaders offered (1) to facilitate the process of cultural awareness by the majority population of the minority population, (2) to increase awareness of racism in the community, and (3) to increase understanding among people.

The Harvest City Council established a human relations committee in the fall of 1991 and hired Mr. George as a consultant to help define the committee’s role. As a result of Mr. George’s actions, the city forwarded a survey to the local schools for distribution to all parents and high school seniors. The survey focused on identifying the perceived community needs as determined by the parents and seniors. The committee’s actions would then be directed by the survey results. In the spring of 1992, tension continued to grow, and some fighting occurred between Anglos and Hispanics in the Harvest community.

The human relations committee sponsored “Fiesta Days” to increase cultural awareness in a fun atmosphere in the summer of 1992. The celebration was a success!

Case Study Chronology

Fall 1992

Tension increased between Anglo and Hispanic students at Harvest High School. The Harvest City Council Human Relations Committee met with the dean of students to discuss the problem. They determined that this was not a gang problem but did have some “ganglike” aspects. The school hired Mr. George to serve as a consultant and to develop plans to deflate the racial tension. The Harvest police chief said that the problems were the responsibility of the parents and that the parents needed to be involved in the solutions.

Fistfights broke out among the Anglo and Hispanic students at Harvest High School and Junior High School. Both Anglo and Hispanic students were suspended. School officials believed that the fights were racially motivated. (About 10% of the high school students were Hispanic.) Additional fights between Anglos and Hispanics were reported at various locations in the community.

The Temporary Farmers Association approached the Macmillian County Mental Health Board with a request for funding a mental health advocate position (Hispanic liaison) that would be “bilingual and bicultural and dedicated to improving the accessibility and quality of mental health and social services for the Hispanic residents of Macmillian County.” The association stated that a growing number of residents in the county were Hispanic, spoke only Spanish, and were becoming an “at-risk” population due to little or no access to services that would improve their lives. The board denied the request and recommended formation of a task force to study the issue.

In a separate request, the Temporary Farmers Association requested funding from the Macmillian County Mental Health Board for a six-month study of racism in the county and its effects on the mental health of Hispanic residents. This project was funded.

As a result of the Mental Health Board’s recommendation, a Hispanic connection task force was developed, primarily through the efforts of the association. The task force represented almost all of the social service, law enforcement, and religious organizations in the county. In its first meeting, the task force discussed the difficulties of providing services to the Hispanic population. The task force concluded that each member organization would benefit from the services of a countywide Hispanic liaison. They also decided that a “needs assessment should be done to determine county resources and needs regarding Hispanics.”

The task force met a second time to design the needs assessment survey and to identify who should receive it. The task force also discussed the Hispanic liaison position: what should be the focus, where would the position be “housed,” and how would it be funded? The members agreed that the position should be within the Temporary Farmers Association because the association was the “only agency within the county that has an ongoing and committed relationship with the county’s Hispanic population.” They also agreed that it must be apparent that all of the task force’s member agencies endorsed and supported the liaison role and that the task force would actively support and coach the person chosen as liaison.

In an unrelated action, the Harvest City Council Human Relations Committee requested from the Macmillian County Mental Health Board funding for and/or assistance with the creation of workplace cultural diversity training programs to build bridges between people (Anglos and Hispanics). The project was not funded because it did not directly relate to the provision of mental health services.

Winter 1992–1993

The Hispanic Connection Task Force forwarded a survey to social service and mental health agencies to “better assess available county resources and needs related to our Hispanic population.”

A second survey, one for the Hispanic community, was developed by the Hispanic Connection Task Force and distributed to the population through member agencies of the task force. Survey results were slow coming in, partially due to the length of the survey. The task force extended the time for the survey to receive sufficient responses to make a conclusion.

After summarizing results from both needs assessments, the task force developed and forwarded a resolution to government and social service agencies countywide. The resolution acknowledged the value of ethnic and cultural diversity and showed the organizations’ support of the Hispanic liaison position. Sixty organizations signed the resolution, including churches, libraries, and mental health and health organizations as well as the county board.

The Macmillian County Board voted 19–2 in support of the liaison position. However, some board members felt that all non-English-speaking residents should have liaison services available to them and that the position as proposed was providing Hispanics with special status. No funding decision was made with this vote.

Following the passing of the resolution, the Macmillian County Mental Health Board approved partial funding for a Hispanic liaison position as presented by the Temporary Farmers Association. They forwarded information about the position and a request for the second half of the salary (up to $20,000) to the Macmillian County Mental Health Board and Human Services Committee. The mental health board felt that the liaison position would help the Hispanic population of 11,000 people access mental health, school, social service, and government programs and enhance their functioning in the county as a whole. The mental health board felt that prevention and lessening of barriers would decrease the likelihood of more intensive (and expensive) mental health interventions in the future. The liaison would also be responsible for community coordination between Latino and non-Latino organizations.

Spring 1993

Two agencies that did not originally sign the resolution altered their positions to a more positive stance regarding the liaison position. The All Faith Church wrote a letter to the Macmillian County Mental Health Board in full support of the liaison position. Charitable Services signed the resolution with qualifications noted.

The Macmillian County Board and Human Services Committee voted in favor of funding the liaison position to “bridge the cultural gap between Hispanics and county officials in delivering services.” Prior to the vote, one member of the committee raised the question of the appropriateness of mental health funds being allocated for a Hispanic liaison position that was developed in response to racist actions. Members of the committee who voted for the position felt that racism was a mental health issue. The committee forwarded the position and funding request to the Macmillian County Board Finance Committee for final recommendation to the county board.

A week after the health and human services committee voted in favor of the liaison position, Charitable Services stated that it had been providing liaison services for the past three and a half years in Harvest and Stone Lake.

The county board chairperson, Ms. Ace, stated that she would investigate to see if the new liaison services were needed and would determine if it was appropriate for the county board to fund the position. The mental health board president, Mr. Jones, stated that the proposed liaison position was much broader in scope than the newly discovered social service position. The county board chairperson decided to not recommend funding to the finance committee of the county board for the proposed liaison position until the Temporary Farmers Association and Charitable Services met, discussed the proposed position, and resolved funding issues. (By now, both groups wanted to be considered for the total of $40,000 salary funds.) The groups agreed to meet with the mental health board executive director, Mr. Jones, and come to a resolution.

Mr. Jones and Ms. Hope, Temporary Farmers Association director, kept a scheduled meeting with the Macmillian County Board Finance Committee to discuss the position. The committee then voted 4–3 against funding the position but agreed to discuss the position again in two months after further study.

The Charitable Services and Temporary Farmers Association directors met and clarified the roles of the two liaison positions. A letter was sent to the county board chairperson noting the clarification and joint support of the new position as proposed.

In the meantime, the mental health board voted to fund the proposed liaison position on a full-time basis for six months. The board felt that the issue was too important to wait for a final funding vote by the county board.

The Temporary Farmers Association had to make a decision whether to take the risk and hire a full-time liaison or wait for the county board’s funding decision.

The Temporary Farmers Association filled the position; Mr. George gave up his SASS position to become the liaison through November with the hope that additional funds would be approved by the county board.

Two months later, after a positive recommendation from Ms. Ace, the Macmillian County Board Finance Committee met again and unanimously recommended funding of the position through FY 93. The next month, the finance committee’s recommendation for funding went to the full county board. The vote was 20–4 in favor of funding the position.

Since 1993, the position has continued to be funded jointly by the county board and the mental health board and has been responsible for the development of five community human relations councils and hundreds of interventions with the Latino and non-Latino communities on individual and organizational levels.


Racism is a topic that many people would rather not address, as evidenced by the population described at the beginning of the case study. When racism finally reaches a level that cannot easily be ignored, ownership of the resolution process can be difficult to determine.

Racism can be evidenced by property and personal damages. Wouldn’t the proper “owner of the problem” be the legal and law enforcement authorities? When the symptoms lead to physical harm that requires medical attention, then wouldn’t the “owner” be the healthcare institution? If the symptoms are acts of disregard for the human spirit, then isn’t the rightful “owner” the church membership? What symptoms need to be exhibited for the problem of racism to fall under the ownership of mental health?

Using the core values of public health as a guideline, answers to these questions can be achieved, as well as a perspective on how racism becomes a public health problem falling within the purview of mental health.

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