Living our Values: A Discussion on Intersectionality
At Outrun the Stigma, one of the core values we operate on is respecting diversity and inclusivity in our efforts to reduce mental health stigma for all Canadians. In an ongoing effort to better understand the complex issues around mental health, our team is engaging in monthly discussions related to activism, advocacy, and social justice. We will be sharing monthly blog posts on our discussions and learnings.
Written by Clare Hickie, Communications Director | email@example.com
What is Intersectionality?
Intersectionality is at the core of some of the most fundamental understandings of identity and the experiences of people with mental illnesses. Intersectionality is the understanding of human beings as being made of multiple identities all ‘intersecting’ to make up a person. These different identities interact with one another and are each on their own social landscape with its own challenges or privileges . This term originated with Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, an American legal scholar, and feminist, and has since become widely popularized and utilized in a variety of social and political dialogues . At its core, intersectionality recognizes that we are all unique individuals who are not defined by just one thing, or one label. We are complex, and many different things, such as our ethnicity, race, income, background, culture, family history, ability, and so on, may have an impact on our experiences.
How is it Related to Outrun the Stigma?
One of the areas in which this term has become more widely used in recent years is in the mental health sector. For mental health professionals, activists, patients and allies, mental health and mental illness are becoming more widely understood as being influenced by the many intersecting aspects of individuals’ lives . The mental health experiences of an impoverished White woman in Canada with bipolar disorder, for example, would likely be very different from the experiences of an upper-middle class Indian-Canadian man with schizophrenia. Both individuals may have complex ways in which their identities interplay with their mental illness; they may have different cultural backgrounds, different challenges or areas of marginalized they face such as racism or sexism, and different privileges and benefits that aspects of their identity may confer on them. In short, intersectionality shows us that mental health is complex and that for different individuals and groups, mental health and mental illness may look very different.
Our core values at Outrun the Stigma involve seeking to understand and empower individuals from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and communities. As a part of our commitment to better serving our community and our own development and growth we decided to get informed and have a discussion on intersectionality and how it impacts our work at Outrun the Stigma.
Our Conversation: Five Takeaways
After doing some reading and research, our leadership team sat down and had a discussion on our thoughts on intersectionality. We’ll share the five main takeaways from our discussion, and how our team hopes to continue to learn and improve our own understanding of the diversity of mental health.
1. Don’t make assumptions about someone’s experiences
A common theme that emerged during our discussion was the importance of not making assumptions about someone’s experiences simply based on their appearances, or what you think you know about them as a person. “Often people look very superficially and will make assumptions from what they see on the surface, but you can’t just be defined by one thing,” said Mohit Vohra, the Co-Director for our Outreach team. Lucy Ni, our Outreach Director for University Outreach added “it’s important for us to be aware of other people’s backgrounds, and also how our own expectations may impact our actions towards them. We need to be mindful of our actions and behaviors towards people, and communication and being open-minded can be helpful with this”.
These are important points to be aware of when approaching someone with a mental illness or who have struggled with their mental health. It can be easy to make assumptions about a person based on what we think we know about them. We may make assumptions about a person’s experiences with mental health based on things like group membership, cultural background, socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexuality, or even occupation. It’s important to remember, however, that any one aspect of their identity is not the whole story. People are complex, and it’s important to let them take the lead in sharing their experiences with mental health instead of making assumptions about their experiences.
2. An intersectional perspective can help build connections and acceptance
“Being an immigrant, having the opportunity to connect with other immigrants is often something that allows us to connect and bond” our Co-Executive Director, Amy Li, shared “even if we come from completely different backgrounds and cultures there is often a shared appreciation for the opportunities that are here, such as education, and also the challenges and struggles”. Intersectionality allows for shared connections between groups: for groups or individuals that may seem to be extremely different on the surface, often there can be hidden shared connections that can allow for bonding, connection, and ultimately acceptance and friendship. “We need to get to know people’s stories and other aspects of their identities, and think about how complex their experiences are.”
3. When it comes to Privilege, Awareness is Key
When it comes to awareness of privilege, our team’s discussion emphasized the importance of both being aware of privilege, and using it to help empower marginalized groups, and offset more marginalized aspects of individuals’ identities. “I think the idea of privilege is one of the most important things to come from intersectionality” shared Gabby Wagner, Administration and Evaluations Director. “In our society, there is this idea that if you work hard you will achieve success, which is not necessarily true. There are a lot of hidden hurdles that certain groups may face”.
It is also important to not make unfair assumptions about how someone may experience privilege shared Amy. “We need to get to a deeper level and look past external privileges, as there can be other marginalized aspects of a person’s identity that intersect and impact them as well."
When it comes to creating meaningful change, it’s important not to feel guilty about aspects of identity that may bestow privilege, and instead, focus on how to use that privilege to help others. “If you wallow with guilt with it, you’re not doing anything useful. Instead, ask yourself, how can I use my privilege to be useful?” pointed out Leah Shipton, Outrun the Stigma’s Co-Executive Director. For individuals or groups with an identity of privilege, this can be a key point. Identities of privilege or marginalization often aren’t a choice, and it’s no one’s “fault” for having privilege. What we do have a choice on is what to do with it.
4. You are not defined by just one aspect of your identity - including mental illness
One of the most vital things to remember is that no one person is defined by a single aspect of their identity. That is a point that is especially true for mental illness and is often one of the most stigmatizing aspects of having a mental illness. The fear of being labeled or marked as someone who is ‘mentally ill’ can often be a barrier to accessing help for mental health struggles. “It’s important not to define people by their mental illness. That’s part of stigma and some of the worries that come with it - that if you tell people about a mental illness that’s the only thing people will see about you. So many different things make up a person, and you aren’t just defined by one thing” shared Mohit.
5. Always ask who is missing, and how can we include them?
Going forward, our team brainstormed methods to take on a more intersectional perspective in our work as community activists and advocates in reducing mental health stigma. “I think a big part of it is always asking ourselves: who’s missing? Who’s missing from this system and how did I miss them?” shared Leah. This fundamental question is one our team has been seeking to ask ourselves throughout our growth as a student initiative into a non-profit but will take on a more central role in our day-to-day operations after this conversation.
“It’s also important to have a safe space for discussions, where we can ask these groups directly what they think and how they feel. We should always keep their perspectives in mind and the unique solutions that they offer” added Lucy, bringing up an important point on the vital importance of community feedback and engagement.
Mental health is complex, a factor that our team discussed at length during this conversation. Certain groups may view mental illnesses differently, both for members of their own groups and external members. As pointed out by our Co-Executive Director Amy, even privileged groups in society, like men, face unique hurdles and challenges when seeking mental health care and facing stigma, which further complicates the discussion on intersectionality, marginalization, and privilege. These five takeaways from our conversation, however, will help guide our actions as we navigate this complex and confusing system and seek to help groups find empowerment and to end stigma for themselves and their communities.
Thoughts? Questions? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts on this piece or leave a comment below.
Follow our journey as we continue to learn and grow as an organization. Check out the rest of our blog for more stories!
In this conversation:
Leah Shipton and Amy Li, Co-Executive Directors
Gabby Wagner, Administration and Evaluation Director
Mohit Vohra, Co-Director Outreach
Lucy Ni, University Outreach Director
Clare Hickie, Communications Director
Alec Watts, Sponsorship and Finances Team
Thank you to all our team members who joined us in this discussion on intersectionality!
References and Other Resources
 Hankivsky, Olena. (2014). Intersectionality 101. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279293665_Intersectionality_101
 Teaching Tolerance. (2016). Intersectionality 101. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6dnj2IyYjE
 Drizza El-Bouzaidi, Nadia. (2017). Mental health is intersectional. Retrieved from http://thefulcrum.ca/features/mental-health-intersectional/
Want to learn more about intersectionality? Check out these additional resources:
Articles - Defining Intersectionality
What Is Intersectionality and Why Is It Important? (http://www.care2.com/causes/what-is-intersectionality-and-why-is-it-important.html)
Intersectionality 101 (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279293665_Intersectionality_101)
Articles - Intersectionality and Mental Health
Mental health is intersectional (http://thefulcrum.ca/features/mental-health-intersectional)
Gender, mental health, and intersectionality (https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/samir-jeraj/gender-mental-health-and-intersectionality)
Intro to Intersectionality by Taryn Crenshaw (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWeDatP0cv4)
Intersectionality 101 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6dnj2IyYjE)
Intersectionality | Social Inequality | MCAT | Khan Academy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2kUpKP18z8)
BreakthroughU: Intersectionality 101 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2DwY3XtRbc)
Sometimes You're A Caterpillar (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRiWgx4sHGg)