Feminism & Mental Health, Part 2: Prevention and Healing

By: Laura Kacere, MA, LPC

Parts of this piece have been reprinted from an earlier piece written by Laura Kacere for Everyday Feminism, entitled “5 Awesome Ways Feminism is Good for Your Mental Health.”

According to a 2016 national survey, 6 in 10 women in America identify as feminists, with 7 in 10 calling the movement empowering. Taken before Trump was elected, it’s possible this number is higher now; the growing number of people who have shown up to protest and challenge our current administration’s sexist and racist policies seems to reflect a growing awareness and willingness to speak out about how they negatively affect us and our communities. If women are finding themselves empowered and connected to the broader struggle for their individual and collective rights, could this also be protective against depression, anxiety, and PTSD? Could feminist awareness and activism be a part of the healing process?

I’ll never forget when I first became a feminist. I was fifteen, a difficult age for many girls, as their bodies start to change and awareness of their bodies as potential sexual objects, their expected roles in society, and the messages about who and what they should be start to crystallize. Depression, low self-esteem, and confusion about identity are common at this age. I remember coming across a book that helped me understand the context and causes of what I was experiencing, that I was not to blame, and that I was not alone. My confidence grew, and I learned how to make my own decisions about how I received and responded to sexist messaging, in fact, I could reject them altogether, and join in with others who did, too. Developing a feminist identity at such a young age in a world that is so hostile to girls can have a radical effect on one’s sense of self. Being able to critique cultural pressures, as we learn to recognize and resist oppressive cultural messages about our bodies, our value, and our roles in relationships and society can create a new sense of personal and collective power in all of us.

Research shows that feminist identification can protect against and be a mode of recovery from depression and low self-esteem. The mental shift that can come with feminist awareness, including understanding and letting go of internalized sexism and self-blame can deeply impact our psychological well-being.

Research also shows that feminist identification and perspective can play a huge role in body image and protecting against body image dissatisfaction, and that women with higher levels of feminist identity tend to have lower levels of disordered eating, despite experiences of sexism.

It’s also been confirmed through research that women who identify with feminist values tend to have better overall wellbeing, particularly when it comes to our sense of purpose, our autonomy, and personal growth.

It’s not surprising that self-efficacy, or one’s belief in their ability to succeed and accomplish goals, is also significantly associated with feminist identity and attitudes. It seems that feminist identity, attitudes, and behaviors are not only good for our communities, but are significantly beneficial to our own well-being, including our psychological wellness, our relationships to our bodies, and our belief in ourselves.

Feminist therapists tend to believe not only in the power of building knowledge, but also in the healing power of building and engaging with community. Collective action has always been a core organizing principle of political movements. And coming together to connect – to see that the “personal is political” – has played a significant role in the feminist movement since women first learned that “it’s not just me.” And research shows that participation in collective action provides needed emotional support and an outlet for the difficult emotions we experience, like anger and stress.

Being a feminist may certainly sometimes feel like it causes more distress, as the burden of staying informed alone can heighten the emotional weight of anger and stress, especially in our present moment. But it also means that we can connect with the larger social justice community to take action to change those very structures. We gain a sense of strength in numbers, as well as support from others as we heal from and sustain our emotional wellbeing amidst these challenges.

It is also important to remember out that mental health is a feminist issue, that the stigma and shame surrounding psychological disorders have a strong force in our culture, and serves only to isolate and further harm those who struggle with these issues. It’s so important for us to do the work of supporting one another as we navigate this difficult world. This might mean encouraging a friend to get help from a mental health professional when they need it, or speaking up about your own struggle with mental health if you feel ready to do so. It might mean placing mental health advocacy at the center of your feminist work.

As a feminist therapist, I can attest to the power of both individual therapy and collective support. It’s important to make space for healing in the very specific ways that you need and desire, and this can often be done in a therapy room, with a trusted therapist. At the same time, I often encourage, where possible, making intentional choices about connecting with other people and ideas through books, online, or in person, around issues that we care about. An understanding of our pain in a broader context – to see the ways that our hurt has been experienced by others like us, to cultivate empathy and connection toward others, and to see the resilience and hope of those around us – can be a big part of managing our distress and healing from trauma.

Seeing the universality or shared human experience of pain and suffering is a building block of self-compassion. In this sense, I believe that not only is feminism good for our mental health, but that our deepening awareness of how oppression impacts our mental health can support our fight for equality. When we do our own work, building insight and awareness into our mental health struggles, we strengthen ourselves, and have the potential to better care for those around us and support movements for justice.