Is Allison More Likely than Lakisha To Receive an Offer for Mental Health Treatment?

The subtle effects of racism and implicit bias are pervasive. Researchers have long known that people with African-American sounding names are at a disadvantage when applying for jobs. Now, research presented in a poster session at the 2015 APA convention suggests that they may also face discrimination when trying to access mental health services.

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In a well-known 2003 study, two economists sent more than 5,000 identical resumes to companies in Chicago and Boston. The only difference was that some of the resumes had stereotypically white names on top (Emily and Greg) and some had stereotypically African-American names (Lakisha and Jamal). The researchers found that “Emily” and “Greg” received 50 percent more callbacks than “Lakisha” and “Jamal.”

Psychologist Richard Q. Shin, PhD, of the University of Maryland, wondered whether that effect would translate to the mental health area.

Together with graduate students Jamie Welch and Ijeoma Ezeofor, and colleagues at the University of Vermont, he left voicemail messages for 371 Maryland mental health provicers. The messages — recorded by the same woman, using the same wording — purported to be from a prospective client named either Lakisha or Allison, looking for counseling services.

The researchers found that “Lakisha” and “Allison” received calls back from the mental health providers at the same rate. However, “Allison” was significantly more likely (12 percent) to receive an offer of services (as opposed, for example, to being told that the provider wasn’t accepting new clients).

Welch says that psychologists, counselors and others need to be aware of their own implicit biases.

“It’s easy for us to think we’re above the implicit biases that are pervasive in our society,” he says. “But we’re part of that society.”

In future studies, the researchers want to find out whether “Lakisha” faces more discrimination when her voicemail message uses African-American vernacular language. They also want to conduct a larger study with more geographic diversity, and to explore the effects of names from other ethnic backgrounds.

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