Mental Health: A Feminist Issue
by Rachel Sloan
Trigger Warning: The following piece discusses potentially triggering topics including mental illness and suicide.
Ableism has long been a problem within social justice movements, and feminist discourse has a history of excluding or actively ignoring the experiences and input of people with disabilities. There is a particularly troubling lack of feminist research and ongoing dialogue on the way mental health intersects with other social categories and informs our understanding of identity, oppression, and privilege.
If the overarching goal of feminism as a movement is, as famously defined by bell hooks, “to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression,” it’s essential to continually re-examine our approach to issues that target those most vulnerable. There is a tendency to dismiss mental health as a privileged issue, but, realistically, mental disorders affect people of all backgrounds, lifestyles, and identities, and can be particularly damaging to people of marginalized groups.
An estimated one in five adults lives with a mental disorder, and nearly 10 million US adults struggle with what’s considered a serious mental illness – a disorder that interferes severely with one’s daily life and limits their ability to work, cope, or function without impairment. Today, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people age 10-34, and the rate continues to increase. Although mental disorders are often influenced by genetics, socialization and environmental factors play a substantial role in the development of mental health problems.
People living with mental illness and intellectual disabilities need better, more attentive allies. Advocacy for mental health – particularly with regard to relatively common disorders like depression and anxiety – appears to be on the rise, though discussion surrounding mental health and self-care still seems primarily self-serving. Even within feminist circles, the stigma associated with mental illness is still very much in place – especially for those living with personality disorders, psychotic disorders, and other severe, invisible illnesses that remain largely misunderstood. In a neoliberal, capitalist society that prioritizes productivity in the form of profit over its populace's well being, working class families of color tend to suffer the most.
Feminists cannot adequately or inclusively address a number of issues including trans rights, domestic violence, poverty, homelessness, mass incarceration, reproductive justice, and more without an intersectional lens, and the role of mental health requires further analysis. The strength of the stigma, access to affordable and effective healthcare, the perception of one’s mental health status, and the factors that influence mental illness all influence and are influenced by social categories including race, gender, socioeconomic class, sexuality, and physical ability.
The National Eating Disorder Association estimates that 10 million American women suffer from eating disorders, constituting a staggering 85% of anorexia and bulimia cases. Women are two times as likely as men to be diagnosed with panic or anxiety disorders, and are three times more likely to engage in suicidal behavior – men, however, constitute the vast majority of completed suicides. Additionally, transgender people struggle with mental illness and suicidality at a much higher rate than cisgender people, indicating a connection between gender oppression, cis privilege, and mental health. A deeply troubling 19% of trans people have been refused care entirely, and half of all trans people report having to educate their own medical provider about transgender care.
Mental illness exists on a vast spectrum, and no one experience is representative of the rest. I suffer from BPD, and although it brings daily, unpredictable, often debilitating challenges, my identity as a white cis woman from a middle-class family provides me with opportunities and respect not necessarily afforded to people lacking the same privileges. In her telling piece for The Fader, Christine Pungong depicts the obstacles she faces as a black woman with BPD, identifying the heightened stigma that stems largely from the fact that “we live in a world that doesn’t grant black women vulnerability.” She details how black women are expected to appear strong and unemotional, and the notion of mental illness as a sign of weakness within black families and communities. Sociocultural expectations, perceptions, and stereotypes continue to prevent people from feeling comfortable or entitled to seek treatment.
There is an alarming lack of adequate, accessible, affordable, mental healthcare for already marginalized populations. Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that experiences within healthcare, as with any institution, are gendered, racialized, and otherwise shaped by perceptions of identity. For these and other reasons, black women are less likely to receive effective treatment for their mental health, though they actually exhibit higher rates of mental illness – unsurprising considering the stress and obstacles caused by systemic racism and sexism.
Allyship is not about comfort, but about action and social change. The phrase “If It’s Not Intersectional, It’s Not Feminism” can be found plastered on protest signs, t-shirts, and across social media platforms since the Women’s March. However accurate, this type of performative solidarity is, in the case of many mainstream feminist movements, where recognition of intersectionality begins and end. Feminists that continually prioritize self-fulfillment and individual empowerment over the liberation of marginalized people fail those most in need of active, supportive allies.
Moving forward, those who identify with the feminist movement must make concerted efforts to include people battling mental illness in their work, elevate their voices, account for the diverse experiences and needs of people with mental disorders, and study the connections between mental health and other, overlapping systems of oppression and privilege. In order to affect real change for the most vulnerable populations, it’s necessary for feminist politics, advocacy, and scholarship to apply an intersectional framework to further examine the role of mental health in upholding systems of oppression.
People with mental disorders and intellectual disabilities are at a much higher risk of harm than the rest of the population, thus signaling the need for feminist action. Not only are prisons disproportionately filled with poor people of color, but the majority of people in prisons are mentally ill. Additionally, it’s no secret to anyone paying attention that US police present a specific threat to black people, and a frightening 2015 study revealed that people with severe untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely than other civilians to be killed by US law enforcement. A disproportionate number of the homeless population is mentally ill people of color and, contrary to popular belief, most people with mental disorders are not violent, and are actually over ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime than those without mental illness. The majority of people living in poverty, thus lacking the resources to prioritize mental health care, are people of color. The overlap between oppressed identities and untreated mental health problems can lead to a number of additional obstacles preventing upward mobility and the possibility of liberation.
Rachel Sloan is a 24-year-old Kentuckian with dreams of a feminist utopia. She's a proud queer woman with a passion for radical intersectional feminism and mental health advocacy. As a survivor of mental illness, she speaks out about her experiences in hopes of raising awareness and chipping away at the stigma.