Women and Mental Health
In today’s society, mental health issues are becoming more and more prevalent. This can be traced back to increased overall stress, a more fast-paced lifestyle, social isolation (e.g. lockdown and social distancing), economic uncertainties (e.g. cost of living), and a rise in distressing and troubling events. All these factors contribute to conditions such as anxiety, depression, or burnout and can have severe consequences on our mental and physical health.
This article aims to shed light on mental health disorders and conditions from a female perspective. It will discuss gender disparities in mental health and the significance of risk and protective factors.
We will also dive into other perspectives on mental health in upcoming articles. We chose to explore the experiences of women with mental health first as there seems to be less of a stigma around talking about it. Women are also more likely to confide in a trusted friend, family member or specialist when it comes to their struggles and worries, and truth be told, it is still not easy for men to open up about their mental health.
Importance of Women's Mental Health
“Why are you so moody?”
“Is it that time of the month?”
“Why don’t you smile?”
“You look tired”
“Are you sure you want to wear that?”
“Don’t be surprised if you’re dressing like this, you’re asking for it”
“It was just a joke”
“Calm down you’re being emotional”
“Let me explain it so you can understand”
“When are you going to have children?”
“Oh, you want to have children? But what about your career?”
“Are you sure you want to eat that?”
“Did you lose weight?”
I could go on and on about these kinds of comments that women hear a million times over and over again. It seems to be everyone’s business what women do with their body, their careers, and whether they want to have children or not.
These comments only show a fraction of the societal pressures women are under, therefore looking specifically into women’s mental health is highly important. Women face a lot of unique challenges and experiences that have a significant impact on their psychological (and physiological) well-being. Understanding and addressing these challenges is crucial for gender equality, overall well-being and finding suitable interventions.
The Prevalence of Mental Health Disorders in Women
Common mental disorders (CMD)
In the UK, 1 in 6 people experience symptoms of common mental disorders. Symptoms of CMD were more common in women than in men in every age category.
Likely causes for this disparity are hormonal fluctuations, reproductive factors, societal and cultural expectations and other gender-specific stressors.
“Common mental disorders” (CMD) include conditions such as depression and anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Conditions like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder are more prevalent among women. Societal pressures related to body image and weight, among other factors, contribute to the higher incidence.
According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), eating disorders affect around 1.25 million people in the UK, and the majority of them are female.
The charity Beat reports that around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, and approximately 75-85% of them are female.
Postpartum depression (PPD)
Postpartum depression is a mood disorder that affects some women after childbirth. It is essential to understand that PPD is not caused by a single factor but is likely the result of a combination of physical, emotional, and social factors. Some of the potential causes and risk factors for postpartum depression include hormonal changes, biological vulnerability or a personal history of mental health issues. Further possible causes are the lack of social support, difficulties with breastfeeding and again, societal pressure and stigmatisation of motherhood.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists estimates that around 10-15% of women in the UK experience postpartum depression after giving birth.
Exploring the Possible Reasons Behind These Gender Disparities
Gender disparities in mental health refer to the differences in the prevalence, presentation, and treatment of mental health disorders between men and women.
Biological factors and hormonal influences
Studies have found that mood swings are linked to hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle. The interplay of psychosocial and hormonal factors resulted in an increased risk of prenatal and postnatal depression.
Women may also face significant psychological distress and disorders as a result of reproductive health issues. Constant societal and personal pressure to be fertile and able and willing to have children contributes to the distress and can cause mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
Sociocultural expectations and gender roles
Research suggests that psychiatric disorders result from a complex combination of stress, environmental, neurobiological and genetic factors. The female and male brains are structured differently, and so is their stress response. While genetic factors play a role in e.g. depressive disorders, they don’t fully account for their origin.
We also have to consider that men and women are confronted with different expectations around gender stereotypical roles. These are often fueled by the patriarchal systems, thereby disadvantaging women, which has a negative impact on their mental health.
This finds support in a global study which suggests that women suffer more from depression than men in societies with greater levels of gender inequality.
Risk Factors for Women's Mental Health
Examining environmental and societal factors that contribute to mental health challenges for women
Risk factors are conditions or experiences that increase the likelihood of developing mental health disorders. For women, risk factors may include a history of trauma or abuse, low socioeconomic status, discrimination, lack of social support, substance abuse, and hormonal changes related to menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause.
- Discrimination and sexism
According to the WHO, health outcomes are unequal for people, both across and within countries, with inequity especially disadvantaging women. The following aspects add to the disparities: lower rates of schooling and employment, less pay for similar jobs, underrepresentation in leadership positions, and a higher level of psychosocial stressors and problems, from caregiving burden to intimate partner violence.
A large European Longitudinal Cohort Study by the WHO strongly suggests that perceived gender discrimination is an important factor in a woman's mental health. Women who had felt discriminated against due to their gender had higher scores in Depression.
- Work-related stress and burnout
A lot of stressors in the workplace stem from gender inequalities and are unique to women. When these stressors become overwhelming and stay unaddressed, they can contribute to various mental health issues
Some of these stressors include:
- balancing a career with family responsibilities
- the gender pay gap
- bias and discrimination
- the pressure to fulfil both professional and domestic roles (gender role expectations)
- "double shift" phenomenon, where they work outside the home and then come home to engage in domestic duties
- lack of workplace support for women's unique needs, such as maternity leave, breastfeeding accommodations, and flexible work arrangements
- pressure to excel in their professional and personal lives, leading to perfectionism and setting unrealistically high expectations for themselves
- lack of support (from partner or family)
Protective Factors for Women's Mental Health
Protective factors, on the other hand, are elements that promote resilience and reduce the impact of risk factors. Examples of protective factors include strong social support networks, access to quality healthcare, positive coping skills, stable employment, and a sense of empowerment and agency.
Studies show that social support is positively related to the severity of mental disorders. A strong social support network can act as a protective factor for mental health in women, mitigating the symptoms related to these disorders. Women are also more likely to seek, receive, and benefit from social support (e.g. family members, friends, co-workers, and available resources such as therapy or counselling).
Timely and effective access to healthcare services can prevent the escalation of mental health issues, provide necessary interventions, and contribute to overall well-being.
Similarly to seeking social support from friends or family, women are also more likely to seek professional help than men.
When talking about mental health and difficult feelings, both women and men will often internalise the feelings they are experiencing. The biggest difference between the two is the coping mechanisms they rely on. Men often turn to outlets such as alcohol and drug use, while women prefer to talk about their feelings.
Recognising the interplay between risk and protective factors is vital in designing targeted interventions and support systems to bolster women's mental health.
If you want to learn more about what your employer (or you as an employer) can do to support mental health issues, you can refer back to our mental health playbook and find more resources there.
In summary, women's mental health is a complicated issue that is affected by many different factors, including biology, psychology, society, and culture. To help women with their mental health, it's important to understand what mental health problems are, to recognise that women are affected differently than men, and to understand the things that can make problems become more or less likely.
We can always learn more about these things, and we should work together to make sure everyone has access to good mental health care. If you know anyone around you who might be struggling or who might just need a friend to talk to, be that person and reach out!