Getting Serious About Women’s Mental Health

May is Mental Health Month, and while mental health concerns impact everyone, women face distinct challenges. Women possess unique biochemical and hormonal influences that predispose them to certain mental illnesses, and they respond differently to environmental stresses. Not surprisingly, women benefit from a gender-sensitive approach to prevention and treatment.

In comparison to men, women are two to three times as likely to experience anxiety, twice as likely to become depressed, and they develop post-traumatic stress disorder twice as often. Ninety percent of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, occur in women. Post-partum depression is estimated to occur in up to 13% of women during the first year after childbirth. Conversely, two problems women are less likely to experience are impulse control and substance abuse disorders. (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 2009)

Some of the reasons for these differences can be attributed to biochemistry. Hormonal fluctuations associated with menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause can precipitate the onset of depression or anxiety, and affect the intensity or frequency of symptoms. Some studies suggest that there are gender differences in how the brain processes emotionally arousing information (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 2009). Environmental factors also play a role. Women are raised with different expectations in terms of gender roles, the demands placed on them by their families, and assumptions regarding what they should be able to achieve. Women often have to navigate challenges such as discrimination, single parenthood, lower wages and poverty, and are typically the caretakers in their families. They are also more likely to be victims of violence and abuse, which can contribute to an increased risk of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder.

While genetic or biochemical triggers of mental illness are not always preventable, early identification and treatment can reduce the severity, chronicity, and long-term effects that may pass from generation to generation. Various forms of enrichment and support can provide protective benefits for young girls. Parenting children in a positive and respectful manner, providing positive role models, nurturing supportive relationships with family, encouraging healthy independence, and offering opportunities for young girls to achieve their goals, can provide a preventive buffer that promotes mental health. Efforts to prevent violence and abuse are critical, both within families and in schools and neighborhoods, and early intervention is essential when abuse has occurred.

On an individual level, each woman needs to discover what constitutes “mental health” for herself. Finding a blend of serenity, fulfillment, creativity, and joy is a goal that many women find hard to achieve, but can be attained. Learning how and when to assert one’s needs, set limits and ask for emotional support can enrich one’s relationships. Cultivating healthy optimism, an adventurous spirit, a balance between work and play, and some meaningful self-reflection can enhance personal growth and well-being.

On a broader scale, more research is needed to understand women’s mental health issues. Research specifically tailored to study the unique problems women encounter is needed so that preventative measures and the most effective treatment techniques can be identified. Assessment of women’s mental health should be included in primary care practice. School systems can address some of the mental health concerns of girls through efforts such as anti-bullying programs and equal access to educational and athletic opportunities. Finally, social and cultural influences that affect women need to be considered in preventative efforts, assessment, treatment, research, and public policy.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2009). Action Steps for Improving Women’s Mental Health.

© Copyright 2011 by Gail Post, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • christina

    May 30th, 2011 at 4:36 PM

    It is about dang time! There needs to be the recognition that women are different and our mental and physical health issues are not the same across the board either. Men and women are not the same, they do not need to necessarily nned to have the same medical treatment. For too long research has mostly focused on men and how treatments work on them, and then it was just assumed that it would be the same for women. We now know that there are simply too many differences between men and women for this to be the case.

  • Fiona

    May 31st, 2011 at 11:43 PM

    I think the role of parents is immense in shaping a girl child’s perception of mental health. If the parents are caring of her mental health and teach her about it and how to take care and steer clear of issues, it will be beneficial throughout her life.

  • Brenda Faulkner

    June 5th, 2011 at 2:33 PM

    It’s really obvious that men and women are wired differently. Medical professionals shouldn’t treat them the same when it comes to mental health.

    You wouldn’t treat a woman in the same manner as a man for physical problems, would you? Doctors tailor their approaches depending upon gender.

  • Lesley-Anne V.

    June 9th, 2011 at 1:20 AM

    I was interested to read that women make up 90% of all people with eating disorders. I knew it was slanted heavily to their side, but at that level you might as well think male sufferers don’t even exist. Not saying you should ignore them but there’s no denying it’s a largely-female issue.

  • Michelle Mendoza

    June 9th, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    I had no idea that women were far more likely to experience those symptoms! Thanks for opening up my eyes to this fact.

  • Amelia Winbourne

    June 11th, 2011 at 9:11 PM

    The issues women have to deal with are woefully underfunded. Why don’t we have more funding going towards benefiting 50% of the population which, as the article says, has a 200% higher chance of developing anxiety, depression, and PTSD?

    It’s a serious question that needs answered. Excellent post, Gail. Thanks!

  • Tonya Brady

    June 11th, 2011 at 10:46 PM

    Billions of years of evolution and the simple things still don’t work. At the rate we’re solving these age-old problems such as cramps, PMS, and baby blues, we’ll have evolved out of them completely before they come up with solutions.

    Hey, perhaps I’m onto something here! Could be that’s what the guys that hold the purse strings are all waiting for and why it’s underfunded.

  • Sean Callahan

    June 13th, 2011 at 1:17 AM

    The statistics on domestic violence don’t have women at as a large majority as the media would make you believe. 40% of domestic violence, like it or not, is female on male. However, I believe that psychological violence is heavily initiated by women, with lies, blackmail, etc and I have rarely heard of a man doing any of them.

  • Susie

    March 11th, 2013 at 7:53 PM

    With the older women( menapausal and divorced) with no family members that know the impact that they lived with assault of be it a domestic or sexual they lived it and with age realize they could beat this post traumatic syndrome. What do they do? They were placed into a mental health facility then outpatient but never got the right therapy. The place was not set up to help these individuals. They were misdiagnosed and they struggled. Managed to raise their only son and survived but had a problem with sleep and concentration. Finally they seeked out help on their own at a Women’s Center where there were trained therapist finally in thier field of need. After all those years say 29years of torture medication after medication and experimented but nothing worked. Finally they opened up cause they got out of the mental health system and started living again. They found a good trained therapist which is crucial for the person. That is what we all need is the right therapy. Have to realize that not all therapists are the same. Have to find someone who knows where you have been and how to help you pull out of it. This is what I call a long hard journey to survive. To be able to live again. After all those years never being able to work due to all the trauma. What a shame the mental health system didn’t refer this person to the non-violence shelter and the right therapist? Thinking this person is 57 now living finally after many years tried college and failed due to a nervous breakdown and then worked some but not enough hours for their medicare nor SSDI. Never got to work a regular job. Couldn’t keep the hours due to disturbed mind. Never had the talk therapy she needed. Now stuck on just SSI and medicaid this person wants to go to work but too old. They need money for car repairs and dental/personal needs. What do you think an older person who is now finally coming to terms with her past and moving on having alot of medical issues would do? Where would they go? They need some crowns on their teeth and no money cause medicaid doesn’t cover. What does that person do now? Retirement years are near. The mind does not stop ever to forget the past but we have to live for today. Definitely women suffer alot more then men unless they were “war veterans” with ptsd. Women have internal organs alot more then men. We all are human but made up differently from man to woman. This is what I think GoodTherapy comes in. People who care. People who have been there.

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