Bigotry does more than just ‘offend’. It severely impacts mental health.

Published: 2019-08-06

This blog post began a week ago with very different intentions. I had been on the receiving end of a sexist tirade by a colleague who then attempted to steal my work, so I was ready to come on here and sound off about some men in tech. But then the news of the shooting in El Paso came through. Then, the news about another shooting in Dayton. And I decided I needed to write a different kind of post. Because I’m sick and tired of hearing the term ‘mental health’ bandied about in a way that only thinks about the perpetrators of bigotry. We do a lot of talking about the mental health of people who hate, but not about the mental health of those who are on the receiving end of it.

Violent misunderstandings.

I spent one hour too many watching the BBC Three documentary on incels this week. If you’re lucky enough not to have come across this community, the definition on Wikipedia states: “Incels, a portmanteau of “involuntary celibates”, are members of an online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one, a state they describe as inceldom.” It is a subculture deeply permeated by misogyny, the kind that mass-shooter Elliot Rodgers espoused in his chilling video manifesto.

The BBC documentary provided a fascinating look into the darker side of internet culture, no doubt intended for people who don’t spend their time scrolling through Reddit or Twitter. It was one giant glaring plea for better mental health services for men, which I respected. Then I realised that in its 50 minutes, the documentary never once gave a voice to one of the women who had been targeted or abused by one of these men.

And it got me thinking about how in times of uncertainty we rationalise the things we don’t understand to be ‘other’. If you can’t understand the motive of someone shooting up a garlic festival or a shopping mall, blame it on mental health. If you can’t grasp the point of a desperate, lonely, hateful man trying to go on a shooting spree in a sorority house, it must be mental health, right?When the news about horrific mass violence breaks, we do a lot of soul-searching as a society. Predictably (especially if the perpetrator is white), we end up at the old refrain ‘they must be suffering from mental issues.’ More often than not, it’s less to do with mental health than pure, unadulterated hate. But in the same way we overanalyse the mental state of perpetrators, we underplay the effects of their hate on their victims, which can be severe. Psychologist Laurel B Watson argues, “Over time, existing in a state of hypervigilance has a negative impact, and leads to a higher level of psychological distress.” Victim suicides after mass shootings are a tragically familiar phenomenon. Sexism and misogyny, particularly when coupled with sexual assault and domestic violence, increases rates of anxiety, depression and PTSD in women who are 70% more likely to suffer from depression and twice as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder. Racism has had a similar effect on the mental health of people of colour, along with detrimental effects on their physical health. The culmination of combined racist, sexist, homophobic or ableist abuse only heightens the odds that an individual will suffer from poor mental wellbeing.

So while there is a huge, damaging discussion on social media and in the mainstream press about the poor mental health of the perpetrators of hate crimes, there is almost no time dedicated to thinking about the victims who live daily with the consequences of bigoted abuse. Everyday offences.

We don’t even have to look at violent attacks to see the effect bigotry has on mental wellbeing. Hypervigilance isn’t just something we experience walking home at night. It can be in the small ways women and minorities present themselves at work or school. A study from this year found “workplace sexism reduces women’s sense of belonging in their industry,” and this reduced sense of belonging has a negative impact on mental wellbeing and job satisfaction, particularly in male-dominated industries. Similarly, a briefing paper from 2018 from the Synergi Collaborative Centre argued that interpersonal as well as structural forms of racism impact the mental health of those in ethnic minority communities in the UK.

The term ‘snowflake’ has now been so overused that it now takes up some sort of sarcastic meta-meme space on the internet and, as such, no longer seems to mean anything. Yet its ubiquitous presence in toxic social media discussions has led to a troubling reality: that the effects of sexism, racism, ableism and other forms of bigotry have been vastly downplayed in the public psyche. I want you to think about this for a second. What does it mean to you when you see or hear somebody say they’re offended? Does it make you angry? Does it upset you? Or can you move on without another thought? If you can empathise with the person who’s just been on the receiving end of something offensive, good. Unfortunately, it seems as if a lot of us don’t think being offended means anything anymore, or that if it does, it’s somehow more of a political or cultural argument than something that affects us personally. And yet, when the offences pile up (as small as they might seem), we suffer hugely.

The imposter.

Since there have already been a deluge of articles on imposter syndrome, I’ll spare you another hot take. Suffice it to say that it becomes much worse when you add to the mix an explosive element of discrimination. Because then it’s not just yourself who is telling you you’re not good enough, it’s other people too. You have proof that there’s someone who doesn’t want you to take up space in the world.

The first time someone faces bigotry or discrimination, it might galvanise them to work harder. Maybe it’ll be the same for the second and third time. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll always be able to rise above it.

But more than likely, there will be at least one incident that leaves them feeling shaken, and it might culminate in a destructive attack on their mental health. It will pile on top of all the times someone has told them women shouldn’t be in this line of work, or that they don’t fit in because of their ethnic background, or that they’re too flamboyant for the office, or that their manager can’t make reasonable adjustments for their disability. Or all of the times they’ve been yelled at in the street, or unwillingly approached at the gym, or sent an abusive message online.

But to add fuel to the fire, people might tell them that they just misunderstood, or that it’s not a big deal. And then on the news that night, they might hear about the tragedy of a misogynist shooter who was suffering with poor mental health. And the salt gets rubbed into the wound because his mental state is being taken seriously. Why isn’t theirs?

So next time you see or hear someone speak up about being offended in the workplace or outside of it, think about what that means. More likely than not, they’re not engaging in a culture war or trying to wind someone up on the internet. They’re letting you know consciously that the bigotry they’ve experienced is having a negative effect on their mind and self worth.

It’s about time we started listening.