Women’s Mental Health

Women’s Mental Health

This year, Women’s Equality Day is August 26. To highlight this day, we’re talking about women’s mental health, some of what makes it unique, and how women can move forward to strengthen their mental health and build resilience.

Men vs. Women

One in five people will experience a mental illness in their life time, but as you might suspect, there are gender differences in the prevalence and manifestation of different conditions. We will not go into great detail, but we’ll focus on the most common conditions and noticeable differences in women’s mental health.

Depression and anxiety. Women experience mood and anxiety disorders at higher rates than men. In a given year, women in North America have about a 10% chance of meeting criteria for major depressive disorder. This number rises to about 23% likely when you look at a person’s whole lifetime. Anxiety disorder prevalence varies by disorder, but it’s about 10% in a year for Specific Phobia (e.g. spider phobia, fear of heights, claustrophobia), 3% for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and 3% for Panic Disorder. These rates are significantly higher than rates for men.

Women's Mental Health - A group of women

Eating disorders. Though men experience eating disorders as well, they are much more common in women. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, about 30 million Americans cope with eating disorders, and ⅔ of those are women. Susceptibility to body image dissatisfaction may contribute to incidence of eating disorder, and recent research has revealed that activity in a specific part of the brain may be responsible for this dissatisfaction. In the study, the researchers found that this activity was more prominent in women than men.

Substance abuse. While women experience lower rates of substance use disorders than men, they are more vulnerable to substance use, especially alcohol. Women in general have higher body fat, which means less body water. When they drink, their blood reaches higher Blood Alcohol Concentrations (BACs) with less consumption. They also have less of an enzyme which processes alcohol, so it stays in their system for longer. Some research suggests that women may be more susceptible to craving and relapse processes. Prevalence of alcohol problems among women increased by nearly 84% from 2002 to 2013. This may be due to increased pressures on women to balance work and home life, changes in alcohol marketing to women, or changes in societal messaging around alcohol.

PTSD. After experiencing a traumatic event, women are more likely than men to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD may manifest differently in women than men. Women are more likely to experience symptoms like being easily startled, feeling numb, avoiding things that remind them of the trauma, or feeling depressed or anxious.

Issues Specific to Women’s Mental Health

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) is a severe form of Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). It follows a predictable pattern, with symptoms beginning after ovulation and ending shortly after menstruation begins. Symptoms can include both mental or emotional difficulties like irritability, depression, mood swings, anxiety, trouble concentrating,  and physical symptoms like bloating, headache, or body aches. PMDD affects 3-8% of menstruating women and is treatable.

Postpartum Depression and Anxiety. Postpartum depression (PPD) and anxiety (PPA) can actually affect both sexes but we will focus on women here. It affects about 1 in 9 new mothers and symptoms are similar to those of major depressive disorder. These include feelings of sadness, irritability, mood swings, changes in sleep or eating, trouble bonding with the baby, and others. Onset can be anywhere from one week to a few months after giving birth. PPD is different from the “baby blues” in the duration of the symptoms. PPA is often less talked about but is actually even more common than PPD. Symptoms include changes in sleeping and eating habits, frequent or constant worrying, feeling irritable or on edge, and others. Both PPD and PPA are very much treatable with medications, therapy, or both.

Postmenopausal mental health. Menopause can affect a woman’s mental health. In addition to emotional changes that may be related to feelings about getting older, children leaving home, or feeling isolated or frustrated, there are the hormonal changes which occur. Mental health symptoms which occur during this menopausal transition are typically depressive symptoms. Again, these difficulties are treatable in consultation with medical and mental health professionals.

How women can support each other?

Women's Mental Health - Two women hugging

We regularly hear from different celebrities that they have struggles with mental health challenges.  Athletes and actors sharing their stories can encourage others to acknowledge their pain and seek treatment. It’s also inspirational to recognize that mental illness does not have to hold you back from professional success. On a more down-to-earth and day-to-day level, though, if you feel comfortable doing so, you can extend this by sharing your struggles with friends who you think might need a push to seek help. It’s important not to make assumptions, recognize that someone might not be ready to get treatment, and not be too pushy. Nevertheless, knowing that they are not alone can be a big help for people who are suffering.

The US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health and the MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health are both great resources for additional information on women’s mental health.