Intersectionality & Mental Health

Updated January 6, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Mental health is a complex topic. It can be impacted by a variety of experiences, stressors, and situations. On top of that, our identities can shape how we view and cope with mental illness. Mental health can be affected by our gender, age, religion, spoken language, sexuality, and more. Understanding how these intersecting identities work together to make up a person is essential. Since we are all unique individuals, we all respond and react to the world differently. By recognizing how intersectionality plays a role in mental health, you can come to a better understanding of yourself, the world, and those around you. 

People Navigate Life Differently

What Is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality: it’s a term that gets tossed around often nowadays. Though it may be an important concept to understand, few people grasp it entirely. It can be hard to define intersectionality. Sociology defines it as an acknowledgment that all groups of people with a common identity will still experience intragroup differences based on their unique identities. These individual identities could be made up of factors like gender, sexuality, spoken language, immigration status, age, race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and more. 

The concept of intersectionality was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe how different aspects of a person can affect their exposure to good or bad experiences. At first, few people paid attention to this definition. Today, though, intersectionality is a popular term used not only in academic circles, but on social media and in everyday life. More and more conversations are centering around this important topic as society works to eliminate inequalities and disparities that have harmed minority groups for years.  Intersectionality calls on us to acknowledge all the intersecting identities that individuals have and how that intersection causes greater marginalization and disparities for certain groups.

The Importance Of Intersectionality

Intersectionality is important because it recognizes that every person is an individual with unique experiences, perspectives, and obstacles. No one can be defined by a singular identity marker alone. Rather, there are a variety of factors that contribute to someone’s experience and interactions with the world around them. 

Since intersectionality refers to the complex ways in which discrimination affects different groups, it can help us recognize where change is needed in our social systems. It helps promote acceptance, understanding, and empathy for people who differ from us, and it can also help us see a perspective contrary to our own. 

What Is Intersectional Equality? 

Intersectional equality refers to the idea that all people should be treated as equals in society. It is a framework for guiding decisions that can promote equal rights for all individuals, regardless of their unique identity. Identity includes factors such as race, socioeconomic status, religion, age, gender, ethnicity, language, immigration status, and more. Intersectional equality looks at all of the identity markers of a person and attempts to pinpoint which traits put them at an advantage or disadvantage. 

Examples Of Intersectionality In Society

Below are two examples of how intersectionality can affect a person depending on their specific identity markers. 

Intersectionality of race and gender: A black woman and a white woman apply for a job, but neither one gets the position. They research the company and see that it employs mostly white men.  They read past employee reviews that mention discrimination. Let’s look at this situation from an intersectionality standpoint. The black woman may have been ignored because of  race or  gender, or both identity markers together. The white woman might not have been hired because of gender, but not because of race. From an intersectionality viewpoint, the black woman has more factors to consider that may have put them at a disadvantage in getting the position. 

Intersectionality of age, gender, and class: A local football club is compiling a list of what players they want to be on their team. Applicants have sent in an informational profile that includes their age, annual income, and gender. Sarah, a 38-year-old woman who makes less than $25,000 per year has applied to play; however, Sarah doesn’t make the team. Here, a few identity markers may have put Sarah at a disadvantage. The group choosing the team participants may not have picked Sarah because of her age relative to other applicants. They might have assumed the higher the age, the lower the stamina. Sarah’s low income may also prevent her from buying the fancy equipment the team wants. Finally, Sarah is a woman, and the team only wants men because they assume men are always faster and stronger. These three factors put Sarah at a disadvantage in making the cut. 

Looking Through The Lens Of Intersectionality

Intersectionality allows us to see how people can experience the world in different ways. It also lets us recognize how people can be disadvantaged by things out of their control. In many cases, multiple factors can create a negative outcome for a person, even though they don’t have the power to change those things about themselves. Whether race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or language, each of these can harm or help an individual depending on the situation. 

Most importantly, intersectionality allows us to see how minority groups are impacted by discrimination, inequalities, and oppression. Through this lens, we are better equipped to understand how people from the same group can have completely different experiences while interacting with the world. Instead of seeing everything through our own experiences, we can step into someone else’s shoes and see how the world may treat them differently based on their unique identity. 

Marginalized Groups 

Intersectionality provides us with the opportunity to break down the experiences of marginalized groups even further and in more detail. Rather than assuming that everyone from a specific group has the same experience, we can see how different identity markers create even more complexity. When someone belongs to multiple marginalized groups, for example, they may face greater discrimination and harassment. Instead of only looking at one identity marker, intersectionality takes them all into consideration so the picture is clearer. 

Identity 

Intersectionality can help us see how different aspects of ourselves make us the unique individual that we are. We can look at how each of these identities overlaps with one another and gain more insight into why we interact with the world the way we do. We can also see why our experiences might look different from the person next to us, even if we seem to have many similarities. Intersectionality can help us find a sense of belonging and acceptance in a world that often leans toward conformity.

Intersectionality And Mental Health 

Many mental health disparities exist among marginalized populations. For those belonging to multiple disadvantaged or minority groups, these disparities are often even more prevalent. Some of the inequalities that exist in the mental health care field include lack of reach to care, lack of resources, discrimination, underdiagnosis, and stigma. These disparities can be explained by a lack of minority representation, lack of awareness and education, and institutional and systemic racism, among other causes. 

For marginalized groups, it’s usually a lot more difficult to recognize, treat, and recover from mental illness. This may be because people belonging to certain racial groups are more likely to carry a stigma around mental illness. Those living in poverty often have a difficult time seeking proper care for their mental health. Individuals in the LGBTQ+ community may face discrimination at a higher rate and be exposed to harmful therapies. Older populations may not have the resources they need to get help when they need it most. 

Each of these populations faces challenges because of a singular identity marker. Imagine, however, someone who has more than one. For example, a gay black man in his 80s who lives below the poverty line will likely face even more challenges than most when trying to seek mental health assistance. Without an intersectional lens to look through, it might be harder to spot all the potential disadvantages the man may face. 

Mental health care providers can use an intersectional framework to help treat their clients. By considering all the ways in which the client might be marginalized, the provider can gain a new perspective and understand where they might be coming from. This can help break down initial barriers that might hold someone back from receiving care and make the treatment process more comfortable overall. 

Incorporating Intersectionality Into Daily Life

Intersectionality can help explain why we might have certain advantages or disadvantages compared to other people. If we recognize that we have more advantages than other groups, we can use that footing to help others who may be oppressed, disadvantaged, or discriminated against. While these groups can speak out for themselves, they often need the help of more advantaged groups to elevate their voices. Incorporating intersectionality into daily life means consistently doing the work to notice which voices need the most elevation. 

Practically, you can help by supporting businesses that are owned by minority groups. You can also support or join organizations for a cause or issue you’re passionate about. Staying up to date with the latest social issues is also important as is committing to continual learning about marginalized groups. 

Using an intersectional approach allows us to interact with people as individuals instead of making assumptions or giving into harmful stereotypes. By listening to the unique experiences of different people from different marginalized groups, we can gain insight into inequalities that exist that we may not have been aware of before. Instead of operating around a single perspective, intersectionality forces us to be aware of all of the factors at play in someone’s experience with the world. Without intersectionality, the most marginalized individuals of society may be forgotten or neglected. 

Taking Care Of Yourself

Sometimes, the everyday responsibilities and stressors of life can get in the way of living happily and productively. Other times, personal problems can feel overwhelming, and people can cause you to feel down. Luckily, there are ways you can take care of yourself from the comfort of your home. Here are just a few of those ways:

  • Practice a healthy lifestyle: Eating right, getting enough sleep, and moving your body daily are all important for staying physically healthy. Each of these habits can also improve your mental health. Fueling your body ends up fueling your mind and vice versa, so make sure to prioritize both. 


  • Volunteer: Feeling like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself can give you a confidence boost and make you feel happier. You might make friends, meet new people, and feel more connected with those in your community. Giving back can help you appreciate what you do have and create lots of feel-good emotions. 


  • Build connections: Having friends or family you can go to in times of distress is good for your mental health. It can be a reminder that you do have people in your life who love you and fill you with a sense of purpose. These people may be able to give you good advice, listen when you can’t make sense of things, or provide resources when you need them most. Lean into the friendships you already have if you’d like, or go out and make new connections. 

Therapy Is An Option

You may find that you need more than just self-care to navigate issues surrounding intersectionality. While therapy is available, it is not always easy or convenient to obtain. For example, many disadvantaged individuals of society are forced to work more than one job to make ends meet. This can make it difficult to arrange traditional therapy appointments. With online therapy, though, more flexible appointment times are often available. In addition, you can meet with an online mental health professional from the comfort of your home. 

Research in the field of mental health has revealed similar outcomes associated with online therapy when compared to in-person counseling. This is particularly true when online therapy employs a cognitive behavioral approach combined with video conferencing technology. Studies like these confirm that individuals who prefer to receive therapy online do not have to sacrifice quality of care. 

People Navigate Life Differently

Takeaway

Have you been trying to cope with life on your own? Are your efforts falling short of where you’d like to be? If so, speaking with a mental health professional could be a smart step for you. One option to look into is BetterHelp. BetterHelp specializes in online therapy and helps people address all sorts of mental health concerns. Since everything is virtual, you’ll speak with your therapist using some type of smart device and a Wi-Fi connection. You can choose to have a phone call, video conference, or simply talk through a messaging feature on the site. 

If you’re experiencing challenges that are interfering with your everyday life, consider reaching out for help. Your mental health is worth it. 

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