Intersectionality And Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Mental health can be complex, as unique experiences, stressors, and social dynamics often impact the mind and body. In addition, each person's identity can shape how they view and cope with mental illness. Mental health can be affected by gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, culture, spoken language, sexuality, and immigration status, among many other identities.  

Understanding how these intersecting identities work together to make up a person may help society understand how the complexities of humanity contribute to health. Since each person is unique, everyone responds and reacts to the world differently. By recognizing how intersectionality plays a role in mental health, you may better understand yourself, the world, and those around you. 

People navigate life differently

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is often used casually in conversation. However, it may be a term that is difficult to understand for many people. Sociology defines intersectionality as acknowledging that all groups of people with a discussed identity will still experience intragroup differences based on their unique identities. These individual identities could comprise gender, sexuality, spoken language, immigration status, age, race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and other identities.  

The concept of intersectionality was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe how different identities can affect one's exposure to positive or negative experiences. At first, few people paid attention to this definition. However, with time, intersectionality became a popular term used in academic circles, social media, and everyday life.

More conversations are centering around this topic as society works to eliminate inequalities and disparities that have harmed minority groups for years.  Intersectionality calls on each person to acknowledge all the intersecting identities that individuals have and how that intersection causes marginalization and disparities for specific groups.

Why is intersectionality important? 

Intersectionality can be valuable because it recognizes that each person is an individual with unique experiences, perspectives, and obstacles. No one can be defined by a singular identity marker alone. Instead, various factors contribute to someone's experience and interactions with the world around them. 

Since intersectionality refers to how discrimination affects different groups, it can help society recognize where change is needed in social systems. It may also promote acceptance, understanding, and empathy for people with different cultures, ideas, and experiences, allowing many perspectives to co-exist. 

What is intersectional equality? 

Intersectional equality refers to the idea that everyone should be treated as equals. It is a framework for guiding decisions that can promote equal rights for all individuals, regardless of their unique identity. 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. 

Some people prefer "equity" to refer to intersectionality, as some identities may not benefit from the same access, tools, or resources as others. For example, someone with a disability may require accommodation at work to complete their job. However, if total equality was a policy, each person would be required to have no accommodations or have the same accommodations, which doesn't necessarily account for the unique needs of someone with a unique disability and may be unnecessary for those who don't need accommodations. 

Examples of intersectionality in society

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

Intersectionality of race and gender 

Example: A Black woman and a white woman apply for a job, but neither gets the position. They research the company and see that it employs primarily white men. They read past employee reviews that mention gender discrimination and racism from management. 

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 compared to the white woman, although both faced potential discrimination. 

Intersectionality of age, gender, and class

Example: A local football club is compiling a list of what players they want on their team. Applicants have sent an informational profile including 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. A 20-year-old man making over $60,000 per year makes the team in her place, as many other players are men in their 20s. 

A few identity markers may have disadvantaged Sarah in this scenario. The group choosing the team participants may not have picked Sarah because of her age compared to other applicants. They might have assumed her higher age was connected to lower athletic ability. Sarah's low income may also have prevented her from buying fancy equipment for the team. Finally, Sarah is a woman, and the team is primarily made up of men. These three identities can put Sarah at a disadvantage, even if she is a star athlete, highly experienced in the sport, and physically fit. 

Looking through the lens of intersectionality

Intersectionality allows individuals to see how people can experience the world differently. It can also showcase how situations out of their control can disadvantage people. In many cases, multiple factors combine to cause a negative outcome for a person, even though they don't have the power to change those factors. Whether race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or language, each identity can harm or help an individual, depending on the situation. 

Intersectionality also allows groups to see how discrimination, inequalities, and oppression impact minorities. Through this lens, society may be better equipped to understand how people from the same group can have completely different experiences interacting with the world. It can also be beneficial to note that some people within a specific community may face more discrimination or oppression due to multiple identities. For example, in the LGBTQ+ community, transgender women of color are at a higher risk of suicide, mental illness, and hate crimes than other groups within the same community.  

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to talk to a crisis provider over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 988 also offers an online chat for those with an internet connection.

If you're an LGBTQ+ youth in crisis, reach out to The Trevor Project hotline by calling 1-866-488-7386 or texting "START" to 678-678. You can also use their online chat. 

Identity 

Intersectionality may shine a spotlight on how different identities make each person unique. You can look at how each of these identities overlaps with one another and gain more insight into why each person interacts with the world the way they do. You may also notice how your experiences look different from another person in your community, even if you have some similarities. Intersectionality can help you find a sense of belonging and acceptance in a world that may lead toward conformity.

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 inequalities in the mental health care field include lack of reach to care, lack of resources, discrimination, underdiagnosis, and stigma. These disparities may be explained by a lack of minority representation, awareness, and education or institutional and systemic racism, homophobia, or transphobia, among other causes. 

For marginalized groups, recognizing, treating, and recovering from mental illness might be difficult. Depending on one's identity, it may be due to the stigma surrounding mental healthcare that can occur in specific communities. For example, BIPOC communities are less likely to seek support or receive quality mental healthcare due to cultural stigmas, shame, and poverty. Those living in poverty often face difficulty seeking proper care for their mental health, and individuals in the LGBTQ+ community may face discrimination at a higher rate by being exposed to homophobia or transphobia. Finally, older populations may not have the resources to reach out for support.  

Each of these populations faces challenges because of a singular identity marker. However, someone who faces more than one of these identities might be at a more significant disparity. For example, a gay Black man in his 80s who lives below the poverty line may face more challenges than a straight Black man who is in his 20s and has a high-paying job. Without an intersectional lens to look through, it might be harder to spot all the potential disadvantages each person faces.  

Mental healthcare providers can use an intersectional framework to 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 lens might break down initial barriers that could hold someone back from receiving care and make the treatment process more comfortable overall. 

Incorporating intersectionality into daily life

Intersectionality can also explain why one person might have certain advantages or disadvantages compared to other people. If you recognize that you have more advantages than other groups, you might use that footing to help others that are oppressed, disadvantaged, or discriminated against. While these groups can speak out for themselves, they might ask for those in more advantaged groups to elevate their voices. Incorporating intersectionality into daily life can mean consistently doing the work to notice which voices need the most elevation. 

In practice, you can make efforts to support businesses that minority groups own. You can also support or join organizations for a cause or issue you're passionate about. Staying current with the latest social issues could also be valuable, as could committing to continual learning about marginalized groups. 

How to care for your mental health as a marginalized individual 

At times, identity-related stressors and disparities can cause mental and physical barriers. For some people, mental illness may be a result. At other times, chronic stress can contribute to the severity of the impact of oppression. If you're part of a marginalized group, consider the following ways to care for your mental health.  

Practice a healthy lifestyle 

Eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and moving your body daily can help you remain physically healthy and promote mental health. In addition, the mind-body connection showcases how supporting one area can boost the other. If you struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle due to your identity, try taking one step at a time. Don't pressure yourself if you can't complete a task one day. Do your best, as a small step may be more effective than no steps. 

Volunteer

Feeling like you're part of a cause may boost your mood. By volunteering, you might make friends, meet new people, and feel more connected with those in your community. In addition, giving back can help you appreciate what you have in your life and what you'd like to cultivate in the future. Anyone can volunteer, and there may be volunteer opportunities that work with you if you need accommodations due to a disability or another identity-related concern.  

Build connections within and outside your community 

Having friends or family members you can visit in times of distress can benefit your mental health. It may remind you that you have people who love you and fill you with a sense of purpose. These people may be able to offer advice, listen when you don't understand a situation, or provide resources when you're struggling. 

In addition, connecting with people who discuss your identities may be beneficial. You can talk about specific disparities you experience and discuss tips on coping. You can also connect with other people in your community who might have a few different identities than you to see how they see the world differently due to their experiences. 

People navigate life differently

Connect with a professional 

At times, self-care may only scratch the surface of the support you seek to navigate issues surrounding intersectionality. However, while therapy is available, it might not be simple or convenient to obtain. For example, many disadvantaged individuals work more than one job, don't have health insurance, or have unique access needs. These challenges can make it difficult to arrange traditional therapy in person. Online therapy might be more effective in these cases, as it is accessible, flexible, and cost-effective.  

Research in the mental health field has revealed effective mental health outcomes associated with online therapy compared to in-person counseling. This research showcases the benefit of internet-based methods for those with depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which may be more prevalent in marginalized communities. If you're worried about sacrificing quality of care, know that online therapy can be as valuable and high-quality as other forms.  

Through an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can connect with a therapist from home or any location with an internet connection. In addition, you can specify whether you'd like to be paired with a therapist of a specific gender or someone within the LGBTQ+ or BIPOC community. Once you connect, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions, offering you control over how you receive treatment. 

Takeaway

An intersectional approach allows individuals to interact with others from an equitable lens instead of making assumptions or falling back on harmful stereotypes. By listening to the unique experiences of different people from different marginalized groups, you may gain insight into inequalities within and outside of communities. Instead of operating around a single perspective, intersectionality pushes each person and societal forces to be aware of equity and equality. 

If you are part of a marginalized group or want to learn more about intersectionality, consider contacting a therapist. You don't have to be living with a mental illness to seek therapy, and many therapists offer support with identity-related and cultural concerns.

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