Pop quiz: What does a person with anorexia look like?
If you’re like most Americans, you probably imagined a young, frail white woman with low self-esteem, obsessed with looking like a Victoria’s Secret model. And who could blame you? Pop culture and news media are abound with images of white girls obsessively dieting in pursuit of a “Kate Moss” body.
Now, answer this: Have you ever seen a black woman with bulimia on TV?
Even though the numbers clearly indicate that eating disorders can affect people of any identity, many people still associate eating disorders solely with young white women. And it’s not just eating disorders; when it comes to mental health, identity-based myths and misinformation are overflowing. Here’s a breakdown of the 3 most common identity-based mental illness myths—and the statistics that bust them.
Anxiety and depression are separate illnesses, but they are often comorbid, meaning that people are diagnosed with both illnesses at the same time. Together, they are one of the most common mental health diagnoses. Both anxiety and depression can be debilitating illnesses, especially when they occur together.
Unfortunately, social and cultural biases about depression and anxiety can often keep suffering people from seeking treatment. There is a dangerous myth that black women can’t have depression or anxiety, and experiencing mental illness is a sign of weakness. There are similar cultural beliefs in other communities, especially immigrant communities, communities of color, and other marginalized groups that have internalized their shared history of trauma.
But this myth is simply not true. You don’t have to be a white person to suffer from anxiety or depression, and it is certainly not a sign of weakness to seek mental health resources—especially when you consider the astonishingly high suicide rate among black queer youth, the truly tragic prevalence of depression among women of color, and the fact thatblack Americans are at significantly higher risk for major depression and related illnesses. It’s a sad irony: People from marginalized communities are among the most likely to face discrimination and hardship contributing to mental illness, but least likely to seek, receive, or even have access to medical care.
2. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Almost every mass media representation of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is the same: A young, war-weary white man, prone to violent outbursts and subject to horrific nightmares. While PTSD and the fight for access to mental health services is a serious concern among veterans, this representation of PTSD leaves huge swaths of the population out of the picture by erasing high-impact, non-combat trauma, such as sexual violence and abuse.
First and foremost, the visibility of male combat veterans with PTSD comes at the expense of military and civilian women who suffer from the same condition—at twice the rate. Yes, you read that correctly. According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, women are more than twice as likely than men to develop PTSD in their lifetime, and the discrepancy holds true for female combat veterans, too.
You’ve probably seen movies about male Vietnam veterans with PTSD, and for good reason— a whopping 30% of returning male Vietnam veterans were diagnosed with PTSD.But so were 27% of returning women. Outside of war, civilian women are more likely than civilian men to experience the kind of high-impact trauma (like sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and childhood abuse) that lead to PTSD. Think about it: if 1 in every 6 American women experience rape or attempted rape, and less than .5% of Americans have seen active duty, of course there are more civilian women with PTSD than military men. It’s simple mathematics.
3. Eating Disorders
As mentioned in the intro, eating disorders are disproportionately associated with white women seeking to control their weight. You’ve probably heard tasteless jokes about starving models, or seen public service announcements in which sad, skeletal white teenagers admit that they haven’t eaten in days. What you probably haven’t seen are representations of men or women of color living with eating disorders. Have you ever wondered why?
The answer is not that men and women of color are immune to the societal pressure to be thin. For starters, not all eating disorders are caused by the pressure to conform to beauty standards. There are also genetic factors to anorexia and bulimia nervosa, the most common eating disorders, as well as eating disorders that do not revolve around the restriction of food, such as binge eating disorder. Furthermore, men can struggle with negative body image, just like women. And, of course, there is no scientific reason why men and women of color would be unaffected by this class of diseases.
Misrepresentations of mental illness aren’t just inaccurate—they’re also dangerous. Studies show that people are more likely to believe that a woman has an eating disorder if she is white—even if she has the exact same symptoms as a woman of color. That’s a direct result of the overrepresentation of white women among people with eating disorders. Without balanced representations of mental illness, people are unlikely to seek help, unlikely to be diagnosed, and unlikely to get the care they need.
So, what can you do? First, recognize your own biases. What stereotypes do you believe about what kind of people have certain mental illnesses? Seek out information and educate yourself on the reality of mental illness, then share that information with friends, family, and loved ones. You never know who might be secretly suffering.
And if you are a person from a misrepresented group suffering from mental illness, don’t worry: You’re not alone. Find the support, medical care, and community that you need–and if you can, speak up. Remember, just because the media isn’t telling your story, that doesn’t mean you can’t. By making ourselves more visible, we can show the world that all people can get sick… and all people deserve help.
Haylin Belay is a freelancer, sex educator, and witch living in New York City. Her writing is informed by her background as an anthropologist and health advocate, exploring the intersection between identity, sexuality, and health outcomes. She’s a recent graduate of Columbia University, where she was known for her distinguished health promotion work, strong commitment to social justice, and twerking in the splits.