Women and  mental health

Loice Vavi Health Matters

It’s important to remember that gender isn’t binary. However, people who identify as women can experience particular mental health challenges due to societal expectations, cultural norms, discrimination, and trauma.

Men and women struggle with many of the same mental health conditions, but they tend to experience them differently. 

Women often face obstacles in getting help and require different treatments than what would typically be recommended for men.The Covid-19 pandemic led to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in women, as well as more emotional and behavioural problems in young girls.

The increase in mental health issues is even more dramatic, two to three times higher for women who were already facing challenges such as food insecurity, interpersonal violence, unstable housing, and lack of access to public services.

How does being a woman affect mental health?

Because everyone experiences gender differently, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Being a woman can be a source of strength and pride. It can also mean facing gender-based discrimination or violence.

Countless factors affect women’s mental health, and each woman’s experience is unique. But in general, physiology, identity, and cultural norms are major influences.

Physiological factors

Our bodies change throughout our lives, and these changes can affect our mental health. Certain physical shifts are common for women.

Hormonal changes during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause can affect your body and mood, as well as contribute to conditions like anxiety and depression.

If you plan to have a child and experience infertility or perinatal loss, you may feel distress about your body not working the way it’s “supposed” to, anxiety about whether you’ll be able to get pregnant or carry a pregnancy to term, or grief over a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Pregnancy and the post partum period can cause expecting and new parents to experience the “baby blues,” a milder form of post partum depression that often goes away within a few weeks after delivery. Sometimes, though, post partum depression can linger for months even years and have a serious impact if left untreated. One in 10 new mothers experiences post partum depression.

Identity factors

Our views of who we are and our place in the world play a big role in our mental health.

The way we experience and express ourselves sexually can be a source of great pleasure and happiness, but it can also be associated with stress. 

Women may face bigotry and discrimination around their sexual identity. Women and girls people face high rates of sexual violence and harassment, which both have wide-ranging mental health effects.

For women of different skin colour, dealing with intersecting forms of discrimination based on both gender and race can lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, and stress.

Women with disabilities may be faced with the additional challenges of discrimination, ableism, and lack of accessibility, which can also lead to feelings of isolation.

Cultural factors

The way society views and treats women can have a huge impact on their mental health. Norms and expectations for girls and women can carry negative or damaging messages, and internalizing those messages can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. 

While progress is being made toward equity, women still cope with many forms of injustice. Sexism is a form of discrimination based on the belief that one gender, typically men, is superior to another. 

Related to this is patriarchy — a social system where men hold primary power and privilege, and where institutional policies and systemic practices put men at an advantage. 

Examples include the gender pay gap, the frequency of sexual harassment and assault, and a lack of women in leadership positions.

Racism can run parallel with sexism to make an even bigger impact on women of colour. Racism appears in forms that range from macroaggressions small but cumulatively damaging acts of discrimination to systemic racism, a type of marginalization that’s deeply established in institutions and communities. In part due to systemic discrimination in health care.

Black women are half as likely as White women to seek help for their mental health.

Whether it’s physical, emotional, sexual, or financial, abuse contributes to mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Abuse happens to people of all genders, but girls and women are at a higher risk for many of these forms of violence.

Child marriage, a type of forced marriage that disproportionately affects girls, prevents girls and women around the world from living full lives. It’s associated with mental health concerns including anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Poverty tends to be higher among women especially women of different skin colour, disabled women. These contributing factors include barriers to education, gender pay disparities, unpaid or undervalued domestic work, job insecurity, and lack of workplace protections.

Health care disparities mean that women and girls have a harder time accessing quality treatment for their physical and mental health.

 The medical industry tends to favour male symptoms over female symptoms to diagnose conditions, underfund research for diseases that mostly affect women, dismiss female pain or self-reported symptoms as overblown or hysterical, and exclude or under-represent female participants in clinical trials.

As a result, women and girls are often misdiagnosed, underdiagnosed, treated ineffectively, not treated at all, or subjected to dangerous side effects.

Mental health stigmas cause many women to avoid seeking help. Stereotypes of women with mental illness as weak, unstable, or “crazy” can also make it harder for women to find support from family and friends.

Objectification such as valuing a woman primarily for how she looks and her sex appeal is common in the media and can fuel body image issues, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.

Happy Women’s Month.

To be continued.

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