Women and mental health
Women experience depression about twice as often as men. About one in every eight women can expect to develop the illness during their lifetime. Women also outnumber men in generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The disparity in vulnerability to mental disorders between men and women is caused by both biological differences and social pressures.
Researchers have found that hormones affect the brain chemistry that controls emotions and mood. Cycling levels of stress-sensitive female hormones may account for the special vulnerability of women to mood and anxiety disorders.
Women’s and men’s brains are wired differently with different emotional circuitry for safety and fear, writes Louann Brizendine, MD, author of The Female Brain. Scans show that women’s brains activate more than men’s in anticipation of danger.
“Because of her highly responsive stress trigger, a woman becomes anxious much more quickly than a man does. This trait evolved to allow her to respond quickly to protect her children.”
Evolutionary psychologists have also found that women have a greater ability to identify and feel the emotions of others, resulting in increased psychological sensitivity.
Women lead stressful lives as they take on multiple roles in the home and at work. Many are raising children alone and caring for aging parents.
The expectations of their workplace, family members and society may contribute to low self-esteem, a sense of having little control over their lives, and frequent anxiety. Women are expected to compete with men professionally, excel as a mother and maintain a youthful, fit and attractive appearance.
Women tend to be more emotionally invested in interpersonal relationships than men are. So they suffer from the struggles and sorrows in their own lives and also in the lives of their friends and family members.
Women tend to internalize their emotions to a greater degree than men do and blame themselves for failure, which leads to depression. Men are more likely to blame others, which leads to anger.
Many women learned from a young age that to be assertive and independent was to be unfeminine. Even women raised to have high expectations find that they still have less control and fewer rewards than men, and their accomplishments are often undervalued.
But do the numbers tell the whole story?
Is the difference in mental health between men and women actually as great as it appears to be? It’s true that fewer men than women are diagnosed and treated for mood and anxiety disorders. But men are more likely to stay below the radar of the mental health system.
Many men do not recognize, acknowledge, or seek help for their depression. When they do seek medical attention, they may be more willing to report fatigue, irritability and sleep disturbances than feelings of sadness, worthlessness and guilt. So, mood disorders may be misdiagnosed.
Women may be more vulnerable to mental health problems, but they are also more likely to be in touch with their emotions and to seek out help.