Women’s mental health risks

Research studies have found important gender differences concerning risk and prevalence of a number of mental health issues.

Socio-Cultural messages in Western countries teach women to strive for perfect bodies to attract men and achieve happiness (photo credit: REUTERS)
Socio-Cultural messages in Western countries teach women to strive for perfect bodies to attract men and achieve happiness
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In celebration of the upcoming International Women’s Day on March 8, my husband, Michael, has asked me to write his monthly column and address some of the mental health issues concerning women. Certainly, these issues widely affect both men and women, and regardless of gender, they need to take them seriously. However, research studies have found important gender differences concerning risk and prevalence of a number of mental health issues. Below I list and discuss some of these issues.
In Israel, as in other Western countries, some 6 to 7 percent of men and women will experience depression in a 12-month period. However, twice as many women as men suffer from depression. Biologically speaking, women produce less of the “feel good” chemical serotonin and process it more slowly than men do. In addition, women from puberty onward are subject to shifts in hormone levels that affect their moods. Sociocultural factors that induce stress affect women’s vulnerability to depression. In today’s modern world, many women feel that they have to do it all, balance working outside the home with taking care of children and fulfilling many of the other homemaker responsibilities. In Israel, women’s stress levels go up when their husbands are in the army or reserve duty, especially during periods of combat.
Women are particularly at risk of developing depression during both the childbearing and menopause processes. After giving birth, new mothers experience a lack of sleep and fatigue, which can potentially precipitate the “baby blues,” described as worries about caring for the newborn and some mild unhappiness.
About 13% of women experience postpartum depression, a severe depression after delivery that interferes with daily functioning and requires treatment. Later in life, women are vulnerable to depression during the perimenopause period, the years leading to menopause when female estrogen levels gradually decline.
An estimated 20% of women become clinically depressed during menopause.
One of the major risk factors for women who become depressed is suicide. Almost twice as many women as men attempt suicide. However, the suicide rate is higher among men since men are more impulsive and violent in their suicidal attempts, making them more “successful.” Women are more likely to try killing themselves by poisoning, which includes taking an overdose of drugs like sleeping pills or painkillers.
Anxiety disorders and phobias
Although there are some specific anxiety disorders that are just as common in men as they are in women, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, women are more vulnerable to generalized anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia (fear of open spaces). Post-traumatic stress disorder affects both men and women and is associated with trauma-related events such as natural disasters, crime, terrorism and combat exposure for soldiers. Women, however, are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD since they are more often the victims of domestic violence and sexual assaults. Rape is one of the most significant triggers for PTSD.
Eating disorders: bulimia and anorexia
Epidemiological studies have shown that anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are more common among females (90%) than males (10%). Sociocultural messages in Western countries teach women from a very young age that they should strive for perfect bodies to attract men and achieve happiness.
Substance abuse and alcoholism
In general, more men than women abuse illicit drugs. However, more women than men tend to use prescription drugs such as tranquilizers, opioids for pain management and sedative-hypnotics for sleep aid. In surveys, women describe their reasons for substance abuse which include weight control, pain management, fighting exhaustion and self-medicating mental health problems. Women who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are at increased risk for substance use and/or alcoholism. Divorce, loss of child custody, the death of a partner or child, or other mental health disorder can be a trigger for women’s substance use.
Steps that women can take
• Be informed. Knowledge about women’s mental health is important for all, but particularly for women, since this knowledge helps empower women and give them more control over their mental health.
• Eat a well-balanced, healthy diet and do not smoke.
• If you like to drink alcoholic beverages, do so moderately, and when pregnant, refrain from drinking.
• Exercise at least three times a week, it helps stimulate an increase of serotonin in your brain.
• Avoid tranquilizers and sleeping pills. Instead, practice natural ways to keep stress down, such as yoga, meditation, working in the garden or other creative outlets that aid relaxation.
• Stay connected with your family, friends and community.
• When necessary, seek professional counseling.
• Mothers need to be good role models and give their daughters positive messages about their bodies and eating. Teaching your daughters to love themselves promotes their self-esteem.
The writer is a child and adult psychotherapist with a full-time practice in Ra’anana. She also provides online videoconferencing psychotherapy. http://ruthgroppermsw.wix.com/ruthgroppermsw. ruthgropper.msw@gmail.com