Academic journal article Social Work Research

Racial Differences in Perceptions of Social Support in Consumer-Centered Services

Academic journal article Social Work Research

Racial Differences in Perceptions of Social Support in Consumer-Centered Services

Article excerpt

The purpose of this study was to explore potential racial differences in the experience of support offered by consumer-centered services for adults with serious mental illness. The study used hierarchical linear modeling to examine the level of support consumers report receiving from programs and the extent to which program-level characteristics reflecting racial diversity differentially influence white and African American consumers. The study used data from interviews with 1,072 white and African American consumers throughout Michigan and from selected program-level data. African Americans reported that a smaller proportion of their network comes from their program, although this is not related to program-level characteristics. Interaction effects suggest that the proportion of consumers in a program who are African American differentially influences the sense of community reported by white and African Americans. Implications for understanding racial dynamics within consumer-centered services are provided.

KEY WORDS: consumer-centered services; race; serious mental illness; social support


Since deinstitutionalization and the former-patient movement, mental health consumers have become increasingly involved in mental health services provision. Consumers have worked as advocates for systemic change, developed peer-led self-help groups, been hired to provide services in mental health service agencies, and established services run by and for consumers (Mowbray, Moxley, Jasper, & Howell, 1997; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 1999). Consumer-centered services have become an important component of publicly funded mental health services.

Consumer-centered services share a philosophy of mutual support, community building, and self-help based on the foundation of a similar experience of mental illness. Given the marginalization of those suffering from mental illness, this shared experience can be a powerful means of developing supportive peer relationships. In addition, research on organizational participation has found that individuals feel more connected to an organization when they believe they are similar to its other members (Tsui & O'Reilly, 1989).

Mental illness is, however, only one aspect of a consumer's identity. The membership of consumer-centered services includes men and women of different age groups and from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Each of these characteristics contributes to an individual's experiences, including, but not bruited to, his or her experience of mental illness. This study considers the influence of race on the support that individuals receive from consumer-centered services.

Race has been found to be associated with how individuals present symptoms, how and where they seek help for a mental disorder, and the type of treatment they receive (DHHS, 1999). In addition, race is associated with the ways in which individuals structure and use their informal support networks (for example, Ajrouch, Antonucci, & Janevic, 2001; Taylor, Chatters, Tucker, & Lewis, 1990) and the extent to which they feel connected to an organization (Tsui & O'Reilly, 1989). The reasons for these findings are tied to both societal (for example, racial discrimination and fewer outpatient services located in largely African American communities) and cultural factors (for example, beliefs about the causes of mental illness and the role of family or stigma associated with seeking treatment) (LaVeist, 1994).

Although the presence of racial differences among consumers does not negate the influence of a similar experience of mental illness, it raises the question of whether this experience is enough to develop supportive peer relationships within a complex social context. However, the influence of race on the experiences of consumers in consumer-centered services in this regard has been largely ignored in the literature to date. …

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