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.
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