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What Do the New CLAS Standards Mean for AAPI Behavioral Health?

Last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services unveiled the enhanced National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health and Health Care (CLAS Standards).

A visit to the doctor can be daunting enough, but imagine how much more challenging it would be if you couldn’t communicate with your doctor or if your doctor didn’t take into account your health beliefs or practices. Language and culture are critical factors to consider in providing high quality health care and services, and with the rapidly growing Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population in our nation, cultural and linguistic competency has never been more important.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services unveiled the enhanced National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health and Health Care (CLAS Standards), expanding the scope and improving the clarity of the first CLAS standards issued in 2000. The CLAS standards are intended to advance health equity, improve quality, and help eliminate health care disparities by providing a blueprint for individuals and health care organizations to implement culturally and linguistically appropriate services. So what do the CLAS standards mean for AAPIs, behavioral health care systems and practitioners?

Research shows that there are disparities in behavioral health among racial, ethnic, sexual and gender minority populations. For instance, among individuals admitted for substance abuse treatment, AAPIs were more than three times as likely to report methamphetamines as the primary substance of abuse than for all other races combined, according to data from the Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS). Studies have also shown that minority populations, including AAPIs, have worse access to behavioral health care, receive lower quality care, and experience poorer outcomes even when they do receive care. Barriers such as stigma, cultural beliefs and limited English proficiency can contribute to these disparities.

Implementing strategies to improve and ensure cultural and linguistic competency in our behavioral health care systems is a powerful way to address these disparities and ensure all populations have equal access to services and supports. Capacity building efforts focused on improving cultural and linguistic competency and incorporating the CLAS standards in systems can elevate awareness; enhance the ability to monitor program access, service use, and outcomes; and improve quality as a result. Practitioners and administrators can participate in training to better understand clients and be responsive to diverse cultural health beliefs and practices, preferred languages, health literacy and other communication needs. Community leaders can use Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s new Toolkit for Community Conversations About Mental Health to start a conversation about mental health in their communities, and help identify ways to ensure mental health needs are addressed appropriately. On a broader scale, some states have taken steps to weave the cultural and linguistic competency into the fabric of their health systems, by passing legislation to implement the CLAS standards.

This National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, I invite you to learn more about the enhanced CLAS standards and think about how you can advance behavioral health equity by raising awareness about and incorporating these practices, starting with checking out the Blueprint for extensive explanations of the standards and implementation strategies. The White House Initiative on AAPIs provides information on behavioral health resources for the AAPI community. For instance, you can view the briefing the White House Initiative on AAPIs and the White House Office on Public Engagement held in May to discuss AAPI behavioral health issues and resources. You can also find more information about behavioral health disparities and behavioral health resources on SAMHSA Office of Behavioral Health Equity website and the National Network to Eliminate Disparities in Behavioral Health website.

Larke Nahme Huang, Ph.D., a licensed clinical-community psychologist, is a Senior Advisor in the Administrator's Office of Policy Planning and Innovation at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.