These days we hear a lot about privilege – class privilege, white privilege, first-world privilege, male privilege, and, I’m sure, many more. The idea is that people who have privilege don’t have problems that other people deal with every day and. In fact, they don’t usually realize that they have this privilege and benefit from it.
I know that I am privileged in many ways. I am white and heterosexual. I have a house, a husband, and work I can do. I have an Ivy League education and grew up in the suburbs, the child of loving parents who never divorced.
But what I don’t have is mental health privilege. I have bipolar disorder.
When a person has mental health privilege, they don’t have to take multiple medications just to keep their brain functioning in something like a normal manner. You won’t get pill-shamed for the meds you take or have random people suggest your problems will all be solved with prayer, yoga, apple cider vinegar, or acupuncture.
(I do recognize that there are many people who take meds for a variety of disorders, including life-threatening ones. I don’t mean to discount their struggles. Physical health privilege and ableist privilege also exist.)
When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to question whether or when you should inform a boss, a potential employer, or a friend or romantic partner that you have a mental disorder. You don’t have to fear that that one fact will make it more unlikely that you can achieve a stable work situation (or any work situation) or a stable relationship.
When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to try to find a therapist who specializes in your problem and can actually help you. You don’t have to repeat your whole psychiatric history every time your therapist gets another job, causing you to start all over with a new therapist. You also don’t have to ask your primary care physician, who may or may not know much about psychotropic meds, to prescribe for you until you find a psychiatrist or when one isn’t even available to you.
When you have mental health privilege, you don’t worry that people will avoid you because you act “peculiar,” miss appointments and dates, or can’t handle crowds or even family gatherings.
When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to fear that you may have to stay for a while in a mental ward or have treatments like ECT.
When you have mental health privilege, you won’t get shot by a police officer just because you have a meltdown or a really bad day or a psychotic break.
Of course, the privileges I do have protect me some. Realistically, there is less chance that I will be killed by a police officer than would a person of color. In fact, my race and income make it easier for me to access mental health care.
The Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, in its July 3, 2017 editorial, makes clear that mental health privilege affects not only people who have mental disorders, but also the people who care for them. The piece, written by Mona Shattell, PhD, RN, FAAN and Paula J. Brown, MBA, points out, “More than 70% of all health care providers in the United States are White (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017), and many, if not most, have unconscious (or conscious) biases (Institute of Medicine, 2003).” Their level of privilege may interfere with their treatment of their clients. The authors of the editorial encourage those with privilege to use it to help others.
Racial privilege is particularly problematic when considering mental health providers and their clients. NAMI Illinois “reported studies found that ‘black professionals make up only 2.6% of mental health clinicians in the United States, which is low considering that approximately 20% of black Americans seek mental health specialty treatment within a 12-month period.'” “While access to culturally diverse providers is low, the cost of mental health treatment remains high,” they add, “which serves as an additional impediment to bridging the gap between the onset of symptoms and accessing professional care.”
Education about mental health privilege may or may not help. Many people pooh-pooh the idea of any kind of privilege and bridle at the idea that they themselves have privilege by virtue of their health, sex, economic status, or other attributes. Some people’s eyes can be opened. (My husband didn’t recognize male privilege until I pointed out that no one suggested he change his name when we married or that we were “shacked up” because he didn’t.)
It’s understandable in a way. People have a hard time envisioning that they themselves might ever be mentally ill or poor or homeless or denied work or discriminated against in any number of ways.
But with mental health privilege, it’s even more difficult to get people to understand. Until a close friend or family member faces mental or emotional difficulties – suffers from PTSD, experiences major depression, develops schizophrenia – people will not usually have the opportunity to realize the mental health privilege they have. And they may not even then.
As with any kind of privilege or stigma, if there is to be any improvement, people need to be educated. It’s not easy to open their eyes. But doing so can make a difference in the lives of people who do not share that privilege.