Socio-cultural factors and women’s mental health

Today, the 10th of October, marks the World Mental Health Day. On this occasion, DiscovHER looks at the impact of socio-cultural factors in the gendered manifestation, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness. Do men and women experience different forms of mental illness? How does gender affect the identification of these conditions, the solutions offered by medical professionals, as well as the perception of people with mental illness by the wider society?

 There have long been debates among researchers over the causes of mental illness, and how these conditions should be diagnosed. These debates are particularly pertinent in establishing whether and how different genders are diagnosed with, and treated for mental illness.

A study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Abnormal Psychology indicates that mental illness is not just a biological issue, but can also result from environmental and societal factors. This not only determines which illness people are likely to suffer from, but also the options they have for getting it treated. Essentially, the study states that although overall rates of psychiatric disorder are almost identical for men and women, men are more likely to be diagnosed with antisocial disorders (external conditions), while women tend to be diagnosed with depressive disorders (internal conditions).

These findings are supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), which went further in its analysis of the gender factor in mental health. According to WHO, “gender determines the differential power and control men and women have over the socioeconomic determinants of their mental health and lives, their social position, status and treatment in society and their susceptibility and exposure to specific mental health risks.” If we deconstruct this statement, we realize immediately that, across the globe, women are automatically put at a disadvantage.

WHO’s analysis of risk factors for mental illness that disproportionately disadvantage women include a lower income relative to men, society-imposed roles, such as being primary family caretakers, as well as the high prevalence of violence (emotional, physical, sexual) that women are exposed to, again in comparison to men. The latter factor introduces Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS) into the mix, whose highest number of sufferers are women. These factors result in women constantly being in constant state of stress, but simultaneously unable to get the necessary treatment either because they cannot afford it, or because their primary responsibility is to others rather than to themselves. Hence, the prevalence of so-called “internal disorders” among them.

Moreover, the gender bias extends to medical professionals, whose diagnoses are prone to stereotypes. This results in a different diagnosis of similar symptoms, depending on whether the patient in question is male or female. For instance, the stereotype about women being more predisposed to emotional distress leads to their being diagnosed with depression at a higher rate than men, and being more likely to be prescribed mood altering psychotropic drugs. It follows then, that as men fail to access the right medical care for depression, they will turn harmful solutions, such as alcohol and substance abuse, whose consequences will presumably be borne by the women in their lives, creating a vicious cycle.

What solutions have been put forward to deal with this gender-weighted mental health challenge? Well, it’s quite simple, at least in theory: for prevention, women should have sufficient autonomy to make decisions in extreme situations such as violence, they should also have material resources to support themselves in the event of a crisis, and they should be able to receive psychological support from friends and family. On the treatment side, more policies should be made to address women's mental health needs and concerns, while taking into account socio-cultural norms that impact them. Mental health care providers should also be sensitized on the specific factors that can exacerbate mental illness in women, to adequately provide them with adapted solutions.

What are your thoughts on these findings? Let us know @4womeninscience

For Women in Science

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