Women’s Mental Health: An Intersectional Feminist Social Justice Issue

By: Leah Harris, M.A.*

Women’s mental health is not just a medical issue, but an intersectional feminist and social justice issue. The groundbreaking 1997 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study opened the door to public understanding about the widespread prevalence of childhood trauma and its impact across the lifespan. The higher one’s ACE score, the more likely they are to experience multiple mental and physical health and social impacts into adulthood. Looking through the lens of trauma allows for a holistic understanding of girls and women in relationship to their environment, and points to pathways for healing and recovery.

Of course, men are not immune to trauma. But what we know from the research is that women are uniquely impacted. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), research has consistently found that “among those who are exposed to trauma, females are more likely than males to develop mental health problems as a result.”  The ACE study found that women are 50 percent more likely than men to have an ACE score of 5 or more. And there is a strong correlation between childhood and adult trauma: women with an ACE score of 4 or more face a nine times greater risk of becoming victims of rape, and are five times more likely to experience domestic violence than women with a score of zero.

Trans-feminine persons, in particular trans-feminine persons of color, are also far more likely to be trauma-impacted than their trans-masculine counterparts. The findings of the Washington Transgender Needs Assessment Survey, the largest survey of transgender individuals in U.S. history, indicate that trans-feminine women of color were more likely to experience suicidality and mental health issues attributable to assault. According to the survey, among those who had attempted suicide, 61 percent had experienced physical assault and 54 percent had experienced sexual assault.

We must end the funneling of female victims of trauma and abuse into the criminal justice system. Discussions of the “school-to-prison pipeline” focus primarily on the impacts on men and boys. Taylar Nuevelle, returning citizen, survivor, and founder of the Who Speaks for Me? Project, notes that while the number of incarcerated girls and women is rising, they are often missing from public conversations about mass incarceration. A recent report on the sexual abuse to prison pipeline found that “girls’ rate of sexual abuse is 4 times higher than boys’ in juvenile justice, and girls’ rate of complex trauma (five or more ACEs) is nearly twice as high.” Girls of color—particularly African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinas—experience the disproportionate impact of criminalization of trauma.

We must act upon what we know and change the conditions that perpetuate trauma and re-traumatization across generations. We must build cultures and systems that foster equity, resilience, and healing. Together, we can break the cycle and create a better future for women and girls.

Ways you can help:

IMG_3114Leah Harris, M.A., is a mother, trauma survivor, advocate, and storyteller. She is the founder ofShifa Consulting, Inc., a microenterprise that provides training to social service agencies, peer-run programs, community groups, faith-based organizations, college campuses, suicide prevention coalitions, and nonprofits on trauma-informed approaches to healing and resiliency.

*Guest blog: Each Mind Matters provides a platform for open dialogue and varying perspectives about mental health. The opinions of the author of guest blogs don’t necessarily reflect those of Each Mind Matters. If you have questions or comments about a blog written by a guest writer we encourage you to continue the discussion with the author by contacting the organization listed in the bio.