Written by Katherine Nicholls
Katherine Nicholls
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Nora Allali-Carling
Last updated 25th July 2023 | Next update due 24th July 2025

Discrimination is the act of treating someone unfairly because of who they are, their beliefs or because they possess certain characteristics.

What is discrimination?

There are many forms of discrimination that take place, and despite the Equality Act 2010, which was formed to protect certain characteristics, it remains a problem.

Discrimination towards minority groups has existed in society for many years. While overall it appears as though attitudes have improved in recent decades, prejudice, discrimination and oppression continue to affect people around the world.

In this video, psychologist and therapist Nicoleta Porojanu (MSc, BSc Hons, GradDip Psy, PgDip ClinHyp) discusses the impact of discrimination and how counselling can help.

What is the Equality Act 2010?

The Equality Act 2010 highlights nine protected characteristics. This means it is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of the following:

  • age
  • sex
  • gender reassignment
  • sexual orientation
  • disability
  • race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
  • religion
  • being pregnant or on maternity leave
  • being married or in a civil partnership

Under the Act, you are protected from discrimination in the following instances:

  • at work
  • in education
  • as a consumer
  • when using public services
  • when buying or renting a property
  • as a member or guest of a private club/association

You are also protected from discrimination if you’re associated with someone who falls under any of the nine protected characteristics, if you’ve complained about discrimination, or have supported another person’s claim. 

The Equality Act 2010 applies in England, Scotland and Wales. It legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace, and wider society. Previously, there were a number of anti-discrimination laws, including the Disability Discrimination Act. These laws were replaced with one Act, making the law easier to understand and actually strengthening protection in some situations. 

Therapists who can help with discrimination

Forms of discrimination 

There are a number of ways you can be discriminated against, including:

Direct discrimination 

Direct discrimination is when someone treats another person with a protected characteristic less favourably than others. For example, if you have the right qualifications for a job role, but you are turned down because you are ‘too young’ or ‘too old’. 

Indirect discrimination

This is when a rule, policy or arrangement is in place that, while applying to everyone, puts someone with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage. Indirect discrimination can be more difficult to identify than direct discrimination, as to the majority it looks ‘normal’.

Intersectional discrimination

When several different types of discrimination combine to leave particular groups at an even greater disadvantage, this is described as intersectional discrimination. An example of this could be a woman from an ethnic minority group in the workplace. Discrimination against women could lead to lower pay than their male counterparts. Discrimination against an ethnic minority can also lead to her being paid less. In this instance, the woman is being discriminated against from multiple angles, so it falls under the category of intersectional discrimination. 


Harassment is any unwanted behaviour that makes another person feel intimidated, offended or humiliated. This may be in the form of jokes, abuse, physical gestures, verbal or non-verbal words or offensive emails and expressions. If it violates a person’s dignity or creates an uncomfortable, offensive environment for them, it is harassment. If you’re being harassed online, it may be referred to as cyberbullying


This is when someone is treated poorly as a result of them complaining or reporting a discrimination offence or harassment. This also includes a person being victimised because they supported another victim of discrimination. 

Association and perception

Discrimination can also come in the form of association and perception. 'By association' is when a person is treated unfairly because they know, or are associated with someone with a protected characteristic. For example, being refused entry to a bar or restaurant because their friend is of a particular race or religion. 'By perception' is any unfair treatment put on a person because someone thinks they belong to a particular group with protected characteristics. 

What is hate crime?

Hate crime is defined as a crime motivated by racial, sexual or other prejudice, typically involving violence. For example, if someone verbally abuses you on the street because you are disabled. Here are some examples of hate crimes. 

Racist and religious hate crime 

A racial group refers to a group of people who are defined by reference to their race, colour, nationality or ethnic or national origin. A religious group is a group of people who share the same religious beliefs, such as Christians, Muslims and Hindus. It also includes those with no religious belief at all (such as atheists). 

If the victim or anyone else thinks an incident was carried out due to hostility or prejudice against race or religion, it is regarded as a hate incident. 

What types of incidents are considered racist or religious hate incidents? 

Hate incidents can take many forms, such as verbal and physical abuse, online abuse, threatening behaviour, bullying and property damage. They can be a one-off incident, or ongoing harassment or intimidation. They may be carried out by strangers, or by someone you know, like a carer, teacher, neighbour or friend. 

When does it become a hate crime? 

Racist or religious incidents are hate crimes when they become a criminal offence. Any criminal offence can be a hate crime if the incident occurred due to the offender being prejudged or hostile towards you and your race or religion.

According to Citizens Advice, there are two types of racist and religious hate crimes: 

  • racially or religiously aggravated offences under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998
  • any other offences for which the sentence can be increased under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 if they are classed as a hate crime 

In both cases, the judge has the ability to impose a tougher sentence if the criminal offence is classed as a racist or religious hate crime. 

Disability hate crime 

If someone has been hostile or violent towards you because of your disability, it is considered a hate incident. Like racial and religious hate incidents, disability hate incidents can happen anywhere. You may know the offender, or they may be a stranger. 

You can also be a victim of a disability hate incident, even if you don’t have a disability. If someone believes you have a disability, or you are associated with someone with a disability, for example, your child or a friend, you can be a victim of disability hate incidents.

LGBTQ+ hate crime

If someone has been violent or hostile towards you because of your sexual orientation, this is a homophobic hate incident. Hostile or violent incidents because of your transgender identity is a transphobic hate incident. 

Anyone can be the victim of a homophobic or transphobic hate incident. As with other discrimination incidents, you can also be targeted by perception or by association.

The effects of discrimination 

No one should be discriminated against and yet, for many people, discrimination and prejudice is an everyday reality. 

When another person mistreats, judges or discriminates against you because of who you are or what you believe in, it can have a profound effect on your mental well-being and life experience. 

What are the effects of discrimination on mental health?

Discrimination can affect a person’s mental health in a number of ways. According to the American Psychological Association, people who have experienced discrimination report also having higher stress levels. 

Stress can affect health and if untreated, can lead to a number of physical and mental health problems. Whether it is caused by a direct experience of discrimination, or because you are within a community or hold a characteristic that is commonly discriminated against, the pressure can be overwhelming. This kind of stress can be explained using the minority stress model. 

What is minority stress? 

Minority stress describes high levels of stress experienced by minority groups. The social research model was outlined by Meyer (2003) to help understand the effects that these groups may experience. They identified that minority communities often face harassment, victimisation, maltreatment and discrimination. These negative experiences may mean that oppressed groups are at greater risk of negative mental and physical health outcomes. The minority stress model is important in helping to identify disparities between communities and address social change. 

When stress isn’t managed or you are unable to cope, your body will start to show the signs. Your immune system can weaken and your blood pressure can rise. You may feel tired, irritable and emotional. When this pressure builds, it can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.

Of course, everybody deals with stress differently and some of us can handle more pressure than others. However, it’s important you ask for help when you need it.

A traumatic, violent attack can leave you fearing the outside world. Without the right support, further problems can develop including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Discrimination is a complex issue and may compound existing mental health struggles, or create new ones altogether. However it is affecting you, know that support is available.

So, what happens to the mind of a Black individual as a result of racial discrimination? Well, the Black person often lives in a constant state of anxiety, being vigilant for the next snub or attack. [They] find coping mechanisms to try and make sense of their oppression, without causing harm or discomfort to their white counterparts and can be subject to internalised racism.

- Sasha McBean (MSc, BSc, MBACP)

Coping with discrimination

If you experience societal oppression and discrimination, it becomes a part of your life. As a society, we need to continuously work to eliminate hate and discrimination, but while we do this, it is essential that you look after yourself as best you can. Below are some ideas to help you cope with the effects of discrimination. 

Have a support network

Discrimination can be isolating. As a victim, you may internalise the negativity you received and this can affect your self-esteem, self-belief and self-worth. Having a support network to rely on can help you process these experiences, and your friends and family can remind you of your worth and support you in the time after the event.

Talk to like-minded people

Support can come from other places, as well as your loved ones. There are groups and organisations that can help like-minded people come together and talk about their experiences. It can be reassuring to know you’re not alone in this, and connecting with these people can help you learn how to address and respond to experiences.

Focus on your reactions

Being a victim of discrimination can trigger a lot of strong emotions, often all at once. Feelings of hurt, anger, shame and sadness can appear suddenly and influence your response. These experiences can also trigger a physical response too, such as increased blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature.

Slow your breathing and practise other relaxation techniques to cope with the immediate stress response. Taking things slow will help you keep a clear head so you can respond from a place of intention.

Report hate crimes

If you have been affected by (or witnessed) a hate crime, it's important to report it if you feel able to. Taking positive action to stand up against hate can help you feel more in control. You can report hate crimes online

Seek professional help

Discrimination can be very difficult to deal with and needing extra support is nothing to be ashamed of. We all have our own ways to cope and a lot of the time, speaking to our loved ones is enough. Other times, however, professional help is needed. 

Finding support for discrimination

Discrimination is an experience that no one should have to go through. Often associated with mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression, further support and treatment are often recommended to help.

Talking to a trained counsellor can help in many ways. It can help you understand what triggers your anxiety, how you can overcome past experiences and offer ways to cope day-to-day. There are many types of talking therapies available, though cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is commonly prescribed for anxiety and depression.

CBT combines two different approaches for practical and solution-focused therapy. The idea behind the therapy is that our thoughts and behaviours are affected by each other. By changing the way we think or behave in a situation, we can change the way we feel. The therapy examines the learnt behaviours, habits and negative thought patterns and works with the client to change them into positives.

Mindfulness is another form of therapy thought to be effective in treating stress and anxiety. Mindfulness is an approach that comes from a Buddhist meditation technique and focuses on the present moment, rather than worrying about the past or future.

Other types of therapy that may help include:

  • Multicultural counselling modalities: these approaches can help specifically with systemic or societal discrimination.
  • Trauma-based therapy can help deal with traumatic experiences as a result of discrimination.
  • Humanistic therapies: due to their focus on social justice and equality, treating psycho-social and health-related aspects of discrimination and racism, in particular. 

It’s important to bear in mind that what works for one person, may not be right for you. If you’re ready to seek professional help and are interested in a particular therapy, do take your time and do your research. It might sound good on paper, but you may find that it’s not right for you. When you find a counsellor you resonate with, talk to them about your concerns and ask any questions you have. Together you will be able to decide on the most suitable treatment plan, how many sessions you may need etc.

Further help


Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129(5), 674–697. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.129.5.674 

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