Intersectionality and what it means for mental health

Mental Health @ Home - Intersectionality and mental health - multiple arrows point to centre

The concept of intersectionality was first proposed in 1989 by black feminist researcher Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to represent the many different layers of social stratification that can combine to disadvantage people.  This includes factors like race, sexual orientation, social class, age, disability, and gender.  Expanding on this concept, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins described the intersectional points as the matrix of domination, with vectors of oppression and privilege.

I think intersectionality is useful to consider in general and also with respect to mental illness and mental illness stigma, and it helps to explain the diversity of our experiences.

I’ve written before about the intersection of race and mental illness.  Not only do certain racial/cultural groups have negative beliefs about members within the group having mental illness and accessing mental healthcare, people of racial minorities who have mental illness face racism from outsiders on top of everything else.  The discrimination people experience related to one element of their identity can never truly be separated from another stigmatized piece of their identity.

Those of us with mental illness will sometimes cross paths with police as a result of our illness.  That’s likely to be a very different situation for me as a Canadian white woman than it would be for an American black man.  Imagine if I were to try for “suicide by cop”, and a black man in Ferguson, Missouri were to try the same thing.  Who’s more likely to “succeed”?

Discrimination in the workplace isn’t supposed to happen, but it does, and it seems only reasonable to suspect that the more social strikes against you, the more likely it will be for employers to discriminate.

There is a difference in the mental health care that’s available to people of a higher socioeconomic status than those of lower socioeconomic status.  This is even more pronounced in countries where there isn’t public healthcare, but even in Canada publicly funded psychotherapy is only available to a very small set of people.

It’s also important to give some thought to the ways in which we are privileged, and recognize that not everyone will share that same level of privilege and the social consequences that result.

As a white person, I have tremendous privilege, and if I fail to recognize that it limits my ability to see that people of racial minorities may face barriers that I do not.  Being cis-gendered may not immediately come to mind for many people as an area of privilege, but if you consider it from the viewpoint of the stigma faced by transgender and gender queer individuals, there’s a clear gap.

On top of all of those layers come individual differences.  While in general black non-heterosexual women are likely to face more systemic discrimination than white straight men, that doesn’t mean that a specific white straight male is always going to have a more positive experience than a black lesbian woman.

The society we live in is complicated.  There are many layers of significance, and many things that have the potential to be used for or against us.  Perhaps what matters most is recognizing that complexity, and being open to the fact that people of other backgrounds may have very different experiences than we do.  Certainly within the mental illness community we face enough stigma already without inadvertently pulling each other down.

What are some of the factors that contribute to your level of privilege or lack thereof?


There’s more on social issues on my social-justice-issues.


Have you checked out my new book Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis?  It’s available on Amazon and other major ebook retailers.  It’s also available on the Mental Health @ Home Store, along with my first book, Psych Meds Made Simple.

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28 thoughts on “Intersectionality and what it means for mental health

  1. Meg says:

    That is so true. I’ve always been grateful to be white, female, and wholesome looking (like a sexytimes schoolmarm), because cops are never going to get physical with me unless I’m just begging for it. I have this innocent look, which is hilarious, considering how mischievous I am.

    One TV program I watched that dealt with racism in a really good way, and that I recommend, was The People versus OJ Simpson. It was a ten-part miniseries.

    My dad’s an employment lawyer, and I’m very proud of the work he does to represent people who’ve been discriminated against. He’s sort of like that guy in To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Another thing your blog post makes me want to comment on is that yeah, it can be impossible to get access to community resources. It’s awful. I’ve tried it a few times when I was broke, and the resources were a joke. (Ooh, hey, that rhymed!) So for poor people who need resources, they have my sincere sympathy. It’s all bureaucratic nightmares. I’m sure you’ve also heard of how rotten my country was treating its veterans for a long time. That’s repugnant. Every community resource should be readily available, but instead, I sense that there’s a lot of pencil pushing going on and no actual resources being offered.

    • ashleyleia says:

      Veterans deserve so much more. For any country to essentailly say screw you to people that were prepared to put their lives on the lines is totally unacceptable.

      Sexytimes schoolmarm… love it!!!

  2. Paula Light says:

    I am privileged as a white heterosexual “normal” looking woman. But I also now, approaching age 60, have limited finances. So, even with my good insurance, there isn’t much I can do besides keeping on and working two jobs, living in an area I don’t really like, and never being able to really take a chunk of time off (like at least a month) to just chill the eff out away from everything, which I feel would be very beneficial for me. Oh well, could be worse…

  3. says:

    When I was released from the hospital in 2015, and had to go into a shelter, I was treated like an animal by the staff that ran the shelter.
    It wasn’t bad enough my dignity was stripped, but everything about me was affected by that horendous experience.
    The constant belittling and cursing, was just a tip of the iceberg in that horrible place.
    I kept to myself a majority of the time and just kept striving to better myself and situation by going to the mental health facility. It was a long 2 & 1/2 years, but it’s done and over with. Thank God!

  4. Tshidi_ M says:

    I’m privileged my mom can afford the medical attention I’m receiving for my mental illness. I’m black and besides the lack of privilege in the black community to proper mental health care, lack of knowledge contributes much. They believe when you have a mental illness you don’t get better. They usually mentally write you off.

  5. Sour Girl says:

    II’m a transgender woman with an intersecitonality score about as low as it gets., along with being on the autism spectrum. Getting help has been very difficult, as has fitting in and making friends. I live in fear of harassment and discrimination in all walks of life. I can’t work and can’t even find a job as it’s unlikely that anyone will hire me, despite anti-discrimination laws. When I have sought help, I’ve often found that mental health and medical professionals will blame my transition for a lot of my ‘issues’, but that isn’t the case.

  6. Brendan Birth says:

    I’m about as privileged as privileged comes, being white and male and having many friends and family who are supportive when I have struggled with intrusive thoughts. I consistently need to remind myself that not everyone has the sort of privilege I do.

  7. Michelle says:

    As a white female, I have had privilege in the help I got. My parents used to take me to the county mental health center for help and meds when I was younger. I have access to therapists if I need it. I feel lucky with the health care I have access to through my job.

  8. Hannah Celeste says:

    This is SUCH a great article, and an important reminder for me to check my privilege. I must constantly remind myself that, as a white cis-gendered woman with health insurance and financial stability, I do have many privileges (and access to resources) that marginalized people don’t.

  9. skinnyhobbit says:

    Public psychotherapy tends to be gated behind long waiting lists, as well as being of significantly poorer quality than private, in my experience.

    Also I’m LGBTQ and… heavy sigh… the mental health advocates in my country really don’t care about us.

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