Gutierrez: Intersectionality in mental health discussions

Pallas Gutierrez, Opinion Editor

Putting together today’s spread about mental health was relatively easy. Zaria Howell wrote about rushing in college, prompting me to ask other Opinion writers to explore their own experiences with mental health. I had three writers confirmed in minutes. However, I was immediately struck by an observation: None of the writers who had volunteered were men.

This quarter, seven of Opinion’s developing writers or columnists are men, the exact same number of non-men. The lack of responses from the men on our staff demonstrated the stigma around men’s mental health to me more tangibly than any other experience in my life. There have been a number of psychological studies looking specifically into men’s mental health, and researchers have repeatedly observed that men are reluctant to admit they have mental health struggles and even more reluctant to get help for them.

I eventually found a man to contribute his opinion to this series, but the struggle to find one was illuminating.

Mental health discussions are not intersectional enough to apply to the wide variety of lived experiences in the world, and specifically on this campus. The discussions we have often fail to account for the different mental health experiences of people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, low-income people, first generation students and people with other identities that can complicate mental health struggles. Mental health is discussed as if it is one issue with one solution, when in reality, there are many complicating factors.

Counseling and Psychological Services services are free for Northwestern students, but their services are based on a short-term model. If a student needs long-term therapy or counseling for their mental health, they must be referred to or seek off campus options, which may not be covered by insurance plans. This makes long-term mental health care inaccessible to low-income students. The seemingly constant unavailability of CAPS appointments further compounds this issue, making it impossible to even begin seeking mental health treatment.

People of color are uniquely affected by mental health struggles. According to the 2018 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Report, 20.4 percent of white people age 18 and older experienced any mental illness in the past year, compared to 16.2 percent of black or African American people, 22.1 percent of American Indians or Alaska Natives, 21.1 percent of Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander Americans, 14.7 percent of Asian Americans, 26.8 percent of biracial or mixed race Americans, and 16.9 percent of Hispanic or Latinx Americans. However, only 33 percent of Latinx adults and 30 percent of black adults with mental illness receive treatment, compared to 43 percent of white adults. Cultural stigma and financial issues contribute to this lack of treatment, as does a lack of mental health professionals of color, which leads to provider bias and inequality in care.

LGBTQ people also have distinct issues in accessing mental health services. Traumatic experiences with prejudice, harassment, and gender or sexuality-based sexual violence all contribute to mental health of LGBTQ people, on top of the causes of mental illness that affect everyone. Lesbian, gay and bisexual adults are more than twice as likely as straight adults to experience a mental health condition, but LGBTQ people can struggle with having to come out to their therapist or counselor in order to receive adequate treatment.

Every mental health experience is different, because everyone has different experiences and genetics that affect their health, physical and mental. However, especially on college campuses, it is important to consider how different identities manifest in mental health discussions. Recognizing different barriers and the effects of compounding identities is an important step in having a comprehensive discussion of mental health issues and solutions.

Pallas Gutierrez is a Communication sophomore. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.