Black people suffering from severe depression face higher odds that they will be misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia than white patients, according to a new study from Rutgers University.
The study, which was published in the journal Psychiatric Services, backs up long-held claims that clinicians have inherent racial biases and those biases affect their mental health diagnoses, particularly with their Black patients, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“This is rampant and widespread,” Alfiee Breland-Noble, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, told the Inquirer. Although Breland-Noble didn’t contribute to the study, she has seen the results first-hand because she researches the rate of depression in African-Americans. “It is a pervasive problem in the healthcare system.”
In the study, researchers looked at the medical records of more than 1,600 people who were treated at a community behavioral clinic. More than a third were Black and the rest were white. Based on this research, the study found that roughly 20 percent of African-Americans who were diagnosed with schizophrenia had also tested positive for major depression. This stat was nearly six times higher than the group of white patients diagnosed with schizophrenia who screened positive for severe depression, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The huge disparity is a clear indicator that some Black patients may have been misdiagnosed, Rutgers psychiatry professor, Michael Gara, who is also the coauthor of the study, told the newspaper.
Before a doctor can diagnose a patient with schizophrenia, Gara said, he or she needs to rule out other possible causes, such as depression. But the study proved that this is not always done as it concerns Black mental health patients.
“Let’s face it, people stereotype,” Gara told The Inquirer. “It’s not necessarily malicious, they do it implicitly. It’s automatic.”
For example, Gara said white clinicians may respond if Black patients say they are hearing voices, by automatically diagnosing them with schizophrenia instead of probing deeper.
“The clinician might stop right there and say ‘He’s clearly psychotic’ and make a diagnosis,” Gara explained in the interview with The Inquirer. “But maybe there were a lot of mood symptoms and they never looked for those.” With white patients, clinicians might be investigating further.