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What is Mental Health Privilege?

*gender-neutral they/them pronouns are used throughout

Generally, it is accepted that there are eight main cultural identifiers: ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. An individual may have varying amounts of privilege based on their intersectional identity, which includes these eight identifiers, as well as other things, like education or geographic location. Privilege can be defined as “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group” (Everyday Feminism). So, think of it as being treated with more respect or freedom than someone else, just because you were born into certain groups or situations. Think of it as being treated the way that everyone deserves to be treated but in a society where everyone isn’t treated that way. Remember that “privilege is often invisible to those who have it” (NCCJ). It doesn’t mean that you didn’t work hard or that you don’t have problems and hardships, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about your privilege. Also, you can have privilege and lack privilege at the same time; I do. Privilege is just something that exists. Acknowledge it, and use it for good.

I’m going to hone in on privilege based on the first identifier, ability. More specifically, I’m going to talk about mental health privilege. Some people call this neurotypical privilege, though the term “neurotypical” is often specific to those without autism. “Neurotypical” is a term that describes “individuals of typical developmental, intellectual, and cognitive abilities” (Healthline). Mental health privilege is the privilege individuals have who do not have mental illness*. It means that society considers your brain and your behavior as “normal.” It is difficult to understand what mental health privilege is or how it affects you, because it’s the way you’ve always been treated, a way that seems standard and normal. What, specifically, are some examples of mental health privilege?

Mental health privilege manifests itself in the way a person is treated and the obstacles a person faces, both internally and externally. It means that no one doubts your intelligence based on your mental health state. It means that you don’t avoid social events or staying home from school because you are afraid of how it will affect your mental health or whether or not you will have a panic attack. It’s being able to fall asleep when you’re tired. It’s knowing that others won’t change their opinion about you upon learning about your mental health state, and knowing that you won’t lose your job if your employer learns about your mental health state, despite laws against it. It’s not having to take extra time on a test at school. It’s being able to go to movies and plays. It’s feeling comfortable eating birthday cake and Thanksgiving dinner with your family and friends. It’s being able to get out of bed, brush your teeth, take a shower, and do your hair. It’s going to the beach in a swimsuit. It’s not having to perform specific routines before proceeding with your day, like counting to a specific number before getting out of bed. It’s feeling confident that you can parent children. It’s being able to control your behavior. It’s others taking your emotions seriously. It’s doing the things you like to do and enjoying them. It’s being able to comfortably live your life.

Being aware of mental health privilege, what do you do with it? Like with any other privilege, you should use it to advocate for those with mental health illnesses. Help to normalize mental health issues by keeping the conversation going; don’t shy away from difficult topics. When someone has needs or behaviors that you don’t understand, be respectful and don’t place judgement. In general, use conversation norms. Conversation norms can make others feel heard, respected, and safe. Be a good listener. If someone trusts you with personal information, maintain confidentiality and privacy (unless the information is about hurting themselves or someone else, then talk to a trusted adult). Additionally, educate yourself about what it means to have a mental illness, and be aware of the current issues that affect those who have it. Acknowledge your biases; we all have them. Acknowledge when you are wrong or when you do not know something. With these things in mind, you can be an ally to and an advocate for people with mental illnesses.

*this link defines many mental illnesses, but not all.

We are all students of the issues presented here. If you would like to recommend a correction or change, please email Also, we are not doctors, lawyers, or professionals. Please use your resources to seek help; the front pages of the Student Handbook have lists of who to go to for whatever your need.

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