In April we celebrate World Health Day. How do inequality, gender stereotypes and sexism impact women’s mental health?
Women are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health problem than men; we report higher rates of depression and anxiety which are, by far, the most common types of mental health problems. Depression, for example, is the leading cause of disability worldwide. I come from a school of thought which views psychosocial factors as primary causes when it comes to mental health issues. Biological and genetic factors certainly play their own role but the link between, for instance, childhood abuse and mental health problems is as strong as the link between smoking and cancer. In the past, it was presumed that the fact that women were more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems was linked to the gender stereotypes about femininity: that women were more sensitive and emotional than men. However, women have many psychosocial reasons to be depressed, to feel anxious and distressed, and it is no surprise that many of those reasons are linked to inequality, gender-based violence and harmful gender stereotypes.
So is there really a link between mental health, gender and inequality?
The World Health Organisation certainly thinks so and views gender as an important determinant of mental health. Women and men experience the world in different ways and as a result they can suffer from very different mental health problems. There are some mental health problems that are more common among men. Men are more likely to commit suicide – in some countries up to three times a likely. This is a curious fact given that women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and are as likely to attempt suicide.
Women are far more likely to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress than their male counter-parts which many chalk up to the heightened risk of sexual violence that they face. Women are also more likely to suffer from body image issues connected to mental health problems commonly referred to as anorexia and bulimia. Is this a result of the policing of their bodies and the increased scrutiny that they face? It is certainly interesting that issues around body image are most likely to develop during adolescence when young women suddenly become sexualised.
The gender specific risk factors which heighten the risk of a woman experiencing mental health problems are many: gender-based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, low income and income inequality, the perceived lower status of women and the overburden of caring responsibilities which are often placed on them. What do all of these factors have in common? Inequality.
Not all mental health problems are linked to inequality and many are caused by challenging life events such as bereavement and divorce. Our mental health can change throughout the lifecycle and can be linked to hormonal changes. For example, many women experience mental health problems during menopause or following the birth of a child.
The impact of gender stereotypes on men’s mental health
Mental health is also of course not just a women’s issue. We all experience emotion and distress. However, many men suffer alone needlessly due to harmful gender stereotypes which lead them believe that they should not show or share their feelings. As a result, men are significantly less likely to seek help for depression even when it leads to serious suicidal ideations. This has prompted researchers to conclude that this is a core reason for higher suicide rates among men, particularly when we consider that women are more likely to suffer from depression but also more likely to seek help. Another factor linked to heightened rates of suicide among men is unemployment which is linked to the perception that men must be the ‘bread-winners’ and provide for their families. A tragic side-effect of the economic crisis in countries and areas most affected by the recession was a marked increase in male suicides among ages groups which were most prone to unemployment. In Ireland the suicide rate among men during the recession jumped by a staggering 57pc.
So what does all this mean?
Well for one thing, inequality and gender stereotypes are harmful to the mental wellbeing of women and men. If inequality is not addressed then the disease burden caused by the mental health problems of women will endure unabated and, more importantly, women will continue to suffer. It also means that mental health services should be providing gender sensitive services to ensure that they are responsive. The WHO in Europe are on their way towards adopting a women’s health strategy that puts the issue of mental health front and centre, and recognises the impact that inequality and oppression have can have on women. Let’s hope that European States sit up and pay attention and acknowledge the very real role that inequality plays in the well-being of their citizens.
 This article will avoid the use of the term “disorder” when describing mental health problems because it can serve reduce people’s feelings, and their often very rational responses to negative experiences, to a medical illness.
*Correction note: the post has been edited to reflect the fact that women are more likely to be diagnosed with certain types of mental health problems. *