MH@H Mental Health, Social Issues

Intersectionality and What it Means for Mental Health

Intersectionality and what it means for mental health - diagram of circles intersecting

Black feminist researcher Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw first proposed the concept of intersectionality in 1989 by 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, influenced by oppression and privilege.

In terms of mental illness and stigma, intersectionality helps to explain the diversity of our experiences.

Recognizing the effects of discrimination

I’ve written before about the intersection of race and mental illness. Certain racial/cultural groups have negative beliefs about members within the group having mental illness and accessing mental healthcare. On top of that, people of racial minorities who have mental illness face racism from outsiders on top of that. The discrimination people experience related to one element of their identity can never truly be separated from other stigmatized pieces 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 for an American Black man. Imagine if both myself and a Black man in Ferguson, Missouri, were to try for “suicide by cop”. Who’s more likely to “succeed”?

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

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

Recognizing our own privilege

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. 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 as an area of privilege; however, if you consider the stigma faced by transgender and gender queer individuals, there’s a clear gap.

Socioeconomic status is a major source of privilege, or lack thereof. Supports like universal basic income could help to lessen that gap and relieve people of some of the burdens of poverty.

Reality is complicated

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.

We live in a complicated society, and that’s what intersectionality is all about. 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 others 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, and what role has intersectionality played?

Social justice and equality

The Social Justice & Equality page has info and resources on a wide variety of social issues.

28 thoughts on “Intersectionality and What it Means for Mental Health”

  1. 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…

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. That’s really shitty. Yeah, anti-discrimination laws may sound all well and good, but in practice they don’t protect the people that need them the most.

      1. They’re still necessary,, but they really don’t mean a whole lot in practical terms, because discrimination is often very difficult to prove.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

Leave a Reply