Mental Health Privilege — What Is It? Do You Have It? | Bipolar Burble Blog | Natasha Tracy

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There is such a thing as mental health privilege. Most people, by now, know what racial privilege is — it’s the idea that some races (namely, caucasian, in North America) enjoy certain privileges that other races do not. Racial privilege is due to prejudice and discrimination against those of a different race. Simply put, with my white skin, my life does not experience the same barriers as someone with dark skin might. Well, health privilege and mental health privilege exist too. These privileges are enjoyed by those with good health.

What Is Health Privilege?

Health privilege is a privilege enjoyed by those who are not sick or infirmed. Much like I enjoy certain privileges thanks to my skin color (which I was born with and has nothing to do with me), some people enjoy certain privileges because they have their health. These are privileges that range from not having to worry about the accessibility of buildings and not having to consider illness when it comes to their career all the way to not having to spend hours a month dealing with medications, drugs and pharmacies.

And much like people who experience racial privilege often never even realize the barriers that others face (unless they are attuned or made aware), people with health privilege never think about the lack of barriers they enjoy either.

What Is Mental Health Privilege?

Mental health privilege is a subtype, if you will, of health privilege. Mental health privilege is enjoyed by those who have good mental health — or, for the sake of this article, a lack of a mental illness. If you have mental health privilege, you may never have had the healthcare costs that people with mental illness face every day. If you have mental health privilege, you likely don’t have to monitor yourself for mental illness symptoms every moment of every day like a person with bipolar disorder might. If you enjoy health mental health privilege, you don’t have to worry about your employer finding out about your mental illness and facing possible prejudice and discrimination in the workplace like people with mental illness do. And on and on and on. The barriers people with mental illness (particularly a serious mental illness) face cannot be overstated.

And just as racial privilege exists on a spectrum (for example, a person with white skin may enjoy more privilege than a person with light brown skin, but a person with light brown skin may enjoy more privilege than a person with darker skin), mental health privilege exists on a spectrum too. For example, a person with an anxiety disorder will probably experience much greater privilege than a person with a serious mental illness like bipolar disorder. (Anxiety, obviously, degrades one’s mental health but rarely leads to formal disability while bipolar disorder is commonly a disability.)

People Don’t Consider Mental Health Privilege

And the insidious thing about mental health privilege is that people don’t know they have it. They don’t think about it. They don’t see that other people don’t have it. As with racial privilege, it’s hard to see a lack of barriers — but when you face those barriers every day, they become all too obvious.

For me, those barriers look like all the things that many disabled people face. Those with mental health privilege don’t have to worry about:

  • Not being able to work a regular job or a 40-hour workweek
  • Not being able to handle a full course load at school
  • Increased risk of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis (let alone the increased risk of their child having a mental illness)
  • Being forced to afford many mental health treatments — and on a lesser salary because they can’t work a regular job
  • Having to take time off over and over and over for symptoms that reappear in spite of the best available treatment
  • Having to cancel even desirable things due to the presence of mental illness symptoms
  • Having to clean up a life after mental illness symptoms work to destroy it
  • Having to constantly be on guard for worsening symptoms
  • Having to undergo treatments like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) that are terrifying and sometimes even dangerous
  • Not being able to get comprehensive health insurance due to preexisting conditions
  • Mental illness stigma, where they are judged for a neurological illness that is not their fault

And yes, I could go on and on.

People also don’t see that they live with a privilege that has nothing to do with who they are and is something they were simply born with. They did not earn this privilege any more than I earned my white skin. Because as I’ve said before, the fact that you don’t have bipolar disorder isn’t because you’re better than me, or smarter than me, or more religious than me; it’s simply because you’re luckier than me. You got born with an unsick brain. You got born with a normal brain. You have no idea how lucky that makes you.

So Who Cares About Mental Health Privilege?

This is similar to saying, “Who cares about racial privilege?”

Well, I do, for one. And I’m guessing everyone who faces mental illness-created barriers cares quite a bit.

Now, this isn’t about “evening the playing field,” exactly. This isn’t about saying that every opportunity should be afforded every person — that isn’t reasonable in the least. Some of us are lucky and some of us aren’t, and that’s life. It’s a mixed bag.

This is about seeing the barriers and doing something to lessen them. For example, many Americans don’t support universal healthcare, but that’s because they are enjoying their health privilege and don’t care that the barrier of healthcare exists for others. We need to confront this health privilege and say it’s not okay. Of course, simply having universal healthcare doesn’t mean that a person with bipolar disorder will suddenly be able to enjoy the same life as everyone else; it’s just not possible as a person with a serious mental illness, but it’s a step forward.

I believe that confronting mental health privilege allows light to be shone on the barriers and fosters an increase in empathy in everyone.

My own privilege as a white person is worth confronting because understanding it is the only way I can think of to start to see and comprehend what those without that privilege are facing. I admit to not seeing racial barriers as clearly as I should have. And now, with all the education around racial privilege, I see things in a new way. I see the barriers and I see that they are wrong. I want to use my own privilege for good, rather than me just enjoying it, in ignorance, alone.

And that is what I want from a discussion around mental health privilege too. I want people to realize that it is real. The barriers to people with mental health concerns — let alone those with serious mental illness — are extraordinary, and once you start seeing those barriers, you’ll notice them everywhere. I want people with mental health privilege to use their privilege to help others. I want their voices to join ours. I want their support in mental illness treatment research. I want them to show empathy and compassion to those of us who don’t enjoy that privilege and never will.

So, whether you have mental health privilege or not, pass this article on. Talk about it. Disagree with it. Endorse it. Whatever, just discuss it. This is an important topic and we all have a role to play in its evolution. We can make the world a better place for those with mental illness, but not until we confront the ways in which it currently isn’t working.

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