Background. Recent research in the United States has demonstrated striking health disparities across ethnic groups. Despite a longstanding interest in ethnic disadvantage in psychiatric epidemiology, patterns of psychiatric morbidity across ethnic groups have never been examined in a nationally representative sample.
Method. Ethnic differences in psychiatric morbidity are analyzed using data from the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS). The three largest ethnic groups in the United States – Hispanics, Non-Hispanic Blacks and Non-Hispanic Whites – were compared with respect to lifetime risk and persistence of three categories of psychiatric disorder: mood disorder, anxiety disorder, and substance use disorder.
Results. Where differences across ethnic groups were found in lifetime risk, socially disadvantaged groups had lower risk. Relative to Non-Hispanic Whites, Hispanics had lower lifetime risk of substance use disorder and Non-Hispanic Blacks had lower lifetime risk of mood, anxiety and substance use disorders. Where differences were found in persistence of disorders, disadvantaged groups had higher risk. Hispanics with mood disorders were more likely to be persistently ill as were Non-Hispanic Blacks with respect to both mood disorders and anxiety disorders. Closer examination found these differences to be generally consistent across population subgroups.
Conclusions. Members of disadvantaged ethnic groups in the United States do not have an increased risk for psychiatric disorders. Members of these groups, however, do tend to have more persistent disorders. Future research should focus on explanations for these findings, including the possibility that these comparisons are biased, and on potential means of reducing the disparity in persistence of disorders across ethnic groups.