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Psychiatry lecture focuses on mental health disparities

Feb. 18, 2021, 9:20 AM


by Emily Stembridge

On Friday, Feb. 5, the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences hosted the third annual Harold Jordan Diversity and Inclusion Lecture featuring guest speaker Ruth Shim, MD, MPH, professor of Cultural Psychiatry and Clinical Psychiatry at the University of California, Davis.

Ruth Shim, MD, MPH

The lecture honors Jordan, Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s first Black resident physician, who held a clinical appointment at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine from 1964 to 2016.

Jordan’s numerous achievements also include appointments as chair of Psychiatry at Meharry Medical College, dean of Meharry’s School of Medicine and commissioner of Mental Health and Mental Retardation for the state of Tennessee.

The lecture opened with the presentation of the Dr. Harold Jordan Diversity and Inclusion Award. This year’s recipient was Patrick McGuire, MD, a fourth-year resident and the department’s inpatient chief. McGuire was recognized for his research on the impact of race in psychiatric treatment outcomes. The research is being supervised by Gilbert Gonzales, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy.

Following the award presentation, Mary Elizabeth Wood, PhD, introduced Shim, who received her MPH in health policy from Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and her MD from Emory University School of Medicine. Shim’s body of work has focused broadly on mental health disparities and inequities, with an emphasis on social determinants of mental health and structural racism in academic medicine.

“I’m appreciative to be here with all of you to honor Dr. Jordan and his incredible contributions to Vanderbilt, to psychiatry and to the field of medicine in general,” Shim said. She went on to discuss stereotypes and biases toward patients, differences in outcomes among race populations and the overlooked connections between race and mental health.

“People with mental illnesses and substance use disorders are often the least advantaged members of our society,” Shim said. “Protecting their rights and opportunities doesn’t strike me as being an impossible ideal. Yet, it’s still very difficult for us to do work in this space.”

Shim says these topics can be hard to discuss because the majority of people are socialized to believe that it is impolite to talk about race, racism or oppression. “This begins when we’re children and continues on into adulthood,” she said. “As a result, health professionals have usually not been taught about the connections between oppression and health.”

Shim also warned of the dangers of letting stereotypes make sense of our world. “In medicine, we have defaulted to the belief that there is an intrinsic difference between Black people and other populations,” she said.

Shim says that because of this belief, medical professionals may not understand practical explanations for racial differences in health outcomes.

Looking ahead, Shim wants to continue changing the conversation around mental illness and substance use disorders to help psychiatrists understand health inequities.

“This work involves taking the initiative to bring ourselves up to speed on these topics,” she said. “We need to commit to a lifelong process of self-evaluation and critique. We can’t learn everything in one day, but we can certainly be open to learning and growing for the rest of our lives.”

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