Health Disparities

SAMHSA works to reduce behavioral health disparities among different population groups through programs, technical assistance, and workforce development.


Healthy People 2020 defines a health disparity as a “particular type of health difference that is closely linked with social, economic, and/or environmental disadvantage. Health disparities adversely affect groups of people who have systematically experienced greater obstacles to health based on their racial or ethnic group; religion; socioeconomic status; gender; age; mental health; cognitive, sensory, or physical disability; sexual orientation or gender identity; geographic location; or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.”

Significant behavioral health disparities persist in diverse communities across the United States, including:

  • Racial and ethnic groups
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) populations
  • People with disabilities
  • Transition-age youth
  • Young adults

Various subpopulations face elevated levels of mental and substance use disorders, and experience higher rates of suicide, poverty, domestic violence, childhood and historical trauma, as well as involvement in the foster care and criminal justice systems. Historically, these diverse populations tend to have less access to care, lower or disrupted service use, and poorer behavioral health outcomes. These disparities may be related to factors such as a lack of access to health care, the need for a diverse health care workforce, a lack of information, and the need for culturally and linguistically competent care and programs.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) HHS Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Disparities states, “the societal burden of health and health care disparities in America manifests itself in multiple and major ways. In one stark example, Murray et al. show a difference of 33 years between the longest living and shortest living groups in the U.S.” Another study, The Economic Burden of Health Inequalities in the United States by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, concludes that “the combined costs of health inequalities and premature death in the United States were $1.24 trillion between 2003 and 2006.”

Behavioral health disparities and their impact point to the need for an increased focus on effective prevention, treatment, and services for diverse populations.

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Last Updated: 12/10/2018