Oppressive state riot policeOppression is the unfair or cruel use of power to control another person or group. The term is often used in a political context to refer to the oppression of minority groups such as women and racial minorities.

What Is Oppression?

Oppression occurs whenever one person exercises authority or power in an unfair, abusive, cruel, or needlessly controlling way. For example, a parent who locks a child in the closet could be said to be oppressing that child. Slavery, the refusal to allow women to inherit and own property, the denial of equal rights to people with disabilities, and the involuntary commitment of people who deviate from social norms are all examples of oppression.

Oppression and Politics

Because oppression is often used to refer to political circumstances, the definition of the term is debated, and it is unlikely that there is a single example of oppression that all people can agree constitutes oppression. The degree to which groups in the United States are oppressed is a frequent source of debate with feminists, civil rights activists, disability rights advocates, and prison abolitionists arguing in favor of rampant oppression.

A feminist, for example, might view high rape rates in the United States as indication of systematic attempts to control and oppress women, while another person might argue that rape is an opportunistic, individualistic crime not related to oppression.

Oppression and Mental Health

Chronic oppression can have serious consequences on a person’s mental health. Statistics repeatedly indicate that racial minorities, impoverished people, and women are more likely to experience mental health challenges than members of powerful groups such as white men. Oppression lowers self-esteem, reduces life opportunities, and can even put people in danger of rape, abuse, and other forms of violence.

Members of an oppressed group that experience oppression for sustained periods of time may also begin experiencing internalized oppression. Internalized oppression is a term used in psychology and sociology to describe when a member of an oppressed group begins accepting the views of the oppressors as reality. The person experiencing internalized oppression may allow their oppressors to shape their worldview, begin to hold an oppressive view toward other members of their same group, or a combination thereof.

Examples of internalized oppression may include:

  • A woman who does not speak up in work meetings because she feels her contributions are not as important or are incorrect in comparison to those of her male counterparts.
  • A young person from an oppressed group who avoids leadership opportunities because they feel as if their leadership style does not fit in with traditional leadership models.
  • A person with an accent who avoids making friends with others, feeling as if those from other cultures would not want to be friends.
  • A female construction worker joining male coworkers in putting other women down because they are perceived as not being strong enough for construction work.
  • An immigrant parent disciplining children in an overly-harsh manner so the children will “fit in” better.

Therapy can help those experiencing oppression or internalized oppression by helping the person in therapy recognize it and the ways it can affect life. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, may be applied to help the person in therapy change self-defeating cognitions, attitudes, or behaviors associated with oppression.

Therapy can also often help people address some of the challenges that accompany oppression such as anger, anxiety, or depression.


  1. Cry for help. (2009, April 20). PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/cryforhelp/episodes/resources/minorities-and-mental-health/23/
  2. Cudd, A. E. (2006). Analyzing oppression. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  3. David, E. J. R. (2009). Internalized oppression, psychopathology, and cognitive-behavioral therapy among historically oppressed groups. Journal of Psychological Practice, 15, 71-103.
  4. Frye, M. (n.d.). Oppression. University of Georgia. Retrieved from http://www.terry.uga.edu/~dawndba/4500Oppression.html

Last Updated: 08-2-2016

  • Leave a Comment
  • Maureen B.

    April 21st, 2017 at 2:56 PM

    ONLY in the Commonwealth of Virginia have I been involuntarily committed. I have no record of any acts of violence, against self or others, no alcoholism, or illegal drug use history. I have been 30 years out of the Commonwealth and maintained my physical, mental well-being without the intrusive involvement of the “state”. I now have suffered a severe loss of autonomy, including financial debt, loss of drivers license, not to mention the handcuffing and shackling humiliation. I have refused the drugs, as early research by NIH says “Bad to the Bone”, and I am in active Endocrinology treatment for osteoporosis. I have been drug free for 9 months…the psychiatrist demands drug therapy and refuses to return me to my prior state of wholeness, by signing the DMV document to allow me use of my vehicle. Suggestions?

  • Tammie M

    December 27th, 2019 at 4:27 PM

    All I can say to u is don’t give up on driving again. Do whatever u have to in order to be able to drive again. And don’t let anyone hold u back. U can and will succeed. And never lose hope. Just do ur reasearch. God bless!

  • Katie

    September 12th, 2020 at 11:21 AM

    Do not let yourself be bullied into taking dangerous drugs you dont want or need by this psychiatrist–they will screw up your life. What he is doing to you is a form of oppression of the mentally ill and you must resist. Do anything in your power to find a different doc if you can, or bring research from accredited journals that support the argument that you can get better another way or these drugs are unnecessary and dangerous (risk outweighs the benefit). Find witnesses who can attest to your good mental health and ability to be autonomous and who can serve as allies if you need to take on this doctor’s libel. The health care system is one of the worst oppressive systems out there, and I’m so sorry you are going through this. All I can say is solidarity. The more people organize and stand up to it’s injustices, the closer we are to a healthy future– mental illness is in so many ways a social problem.

  • Katie

    September 12th, 2020 at 11:27 AM

    Also, see if there is a legal route you can take- why would not taking drugs make you unable to drive a vehicle (it would seem the opposite can be true). If you can prove the restriction is unrelated and unnecesary, that is is functioning more as blackmail, you might be able to sue- but I’m not sure. I would contact a disability rights advocate or lawyer.

  • Barbara

    May 31st, 2022 at 1:12 PM

    This does not seem legal. This sounds like a horror movie from the 40’s. I can help research this for you. This cannot be tolerated we have to take a stand for our selves there is to much oppression we allow it’s already having dire consequences. I hope this reaches you.

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