Intersectionality and What It Means for Mental Health

Being a white woman can mean having a very different experience

Ashley Peterson
· 3 min read
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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.

Originally published at on August 27, 2019.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

Ashley Peterson

Written by

Mental health blogger, nurse, living with depression. Author of Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis and Psych Meds Made Simple.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

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