A growing trend in the mental health world is the exploration of intersecting identities, and how discrimination based on these identities impacts one’s mental health.
In my own practice, I have become passionate about helping those with intersecting identities and finding ways to heal internalized systemic oppression. Particularly those who experience an intersection of marginalized identities, such as a Latino lesbian woman, or a transgender Jewish man.
Intersectionality is defined as the intersection between groups of oppressed peoples. Each one of us has multiple identities that have been shaped by historical and social relations, and different combinations of these identities produce their own oppressions.
We can use the framework of intersectionality to understand how social identities, when they overlap, relate to systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. Intersecting identities include gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, social class, ethnicity, age, mental and physical disability, as well as other forms of identity. These aspects of identity are never mutually exclusive or unitary, but rather act in reciprocal ways. We often think of elements or traits of a person as inextricably linked, essential to forming one’s whole identity.
Intersectionality is a useful framework in not only understanding how systemic injustice and social inequality works on a larger, multidimensional scale, but also how that impacts an individual’s mental health.
One of the most glaringly overt examples of how gendered identities shapes our mental health is the link between anxiety and depression and the pressure on men to conform to “hegemonic masculinity,” or the notion that a real man is always strong, resilient, and invulnerable. Emotional openness and vulnerability is then perceived as “unmanly” or weak.
We see how the LGBTQ community is deeply impacted by the effects of oppression and discrimination in our society in which mental illness is particularly high. In particular, transgendered people have one of the highest rates of depression, self-harm, and suicide of all marginalized populations.
When we look at the high rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and violence that happens in marginalized populations, the link between between identity and mental health is glaringly obvious.
Intersectionality proposes that that all aspects of one’s identity must be examined simultaneous to the other aspects: each of these identities affects one’s privilege and perception within society. In this way, intersectionality can never be viewed as a personal identity, but rather an overarching analysis of power hierarchies that exist within identities.
As a practitioner, I am curious about the impact of intersectionality on individual mental health, because within each of us are often a multitude of identities…discovering how overt and covert forms of oppression and discrimination affect our lives on a personal level—and therefore our emotional and psychological well-being—can be immensely helpful and supportive in our own journey towards health.