It Turns Out Even Depression is Sexist

How your gender can affect your mental health.

Originally published in Invisible Illness.

Although stereotypically, the arts of self-reflection and introspection come more easily to women than men — being considered the more emotionally attuned of the sexes — as a general rule, they also have a harder time with obsessive overthinking and rumination. This means that most sufferers of anxiety and depression today are women. Women are also more likely to attempt suicide, although men are at a higher risk of completing suicide — with it actually being the single biggest killer of men under 45.

There are multiple reasons behind all of these statistics, but to boil it down, they suggest that women are more prone to feeling overwhelmed in the first place, whereas men are more likely for their battle with depression to end in tragic consequences.

These differences regarding how each gender develops and copes with depression are most likely not only a result of our physiology (most notably, our varying hormone levels) but also a consequence of the sexism and gender norms that still permeate our society. These gender norms pile expectations and anxieties onto women, making most of us doubt our every asset — from our professional competence, to our body, to our sense of self-worth — on a daily basis.

But simultaneously, those same gender stereotypes are piling pressures onto men: not to cry, to “man up” and not to show any vulnerability, to make money, to provide, and to fulfill the modern ideal of “successful” above all else…

According to MentalHealth.org.uk:

  • Women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem and are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders.
  • One in five (19.1%) women have clinical depression symptoms, compared with one in eight men (12.2%)
  • Each year, around 78% of suicide victims are male, compared with 22% that are female.
  • 10% of mothers and 6% of fathers have mental health problems at any given time.

Whatever your gender, the British charity, Mind, claims that one in four people worldwide will experience some form of mental illness in any given year. And so, even if you haven’t yet experienced some form of mental health issue, the chances are that someone in your close family or circle friends is currently grappling with something, or will do at some point this year — along with a quarter of all the people you know.

Regarding the link between gender and mental health, maybe there’s some truth behind the age-old stereotype that women hone in on the details whereas men focus on the bigger picture — that women are communicators while men are lone wolves.

Either way, these statistics should be used to fuel further research into how we can tailor and improve our approach to the ever-increasing public mental health crisis — taking into account the most pressing needs of both women and men.

Mars vs. Venus?

Other research suggests that women and men tend to have different triggers for anxiety and depression. Men are reportedly more likely to be consumed by stress relating to work and finances. Women, on the other hand, are suggested to be more sensitive to conflict within their relationships or the health and wellbeing of either themselves or their loved ones.

Does this mean that the sexists were right all along? That men are the go-getters and the money-makers, while women are more focused on feelings or what goes on at home?

Well, not exactly. But this research sheds light on how our biology — or at the very least, sociology — can actually have a noticeable impact on what we prioritize and fear most in life. Women may have their eye on a promotion or business opportunity just as much as any man, but as a general rule, it is their interpersonal difficulties that have a higher chance of developing into a reactive mental illness. Likewise, men may cherish their partner, friends, or family just as much as any woman. But the leading cause of depression among the gender is the pressure to succeed professionally and financially. To accomplish. To “make something of themselves.”

Furthermore, other research has revealed that men are more susceptible to depression as a result of more long-term effects of stress, whereas women are more prone to getting depression as a result of immediate stressors that are affecting them in the current moment. This, interestingly, could also partly explain why more women than men suffer from depression at any given time, while men struggle more to cope with it in the long-term, as they tend to develop depression some time after a stressful or traumatic event occurred, rather than straight away as is more likely among women.

These gender trends— as obvious or controversial as you may personally receive them— raise the questions:Does our gender engrain within us our sense of purpose and what we both most strive for and most fear in life?Or alternatively, have the long-standing societal pressures — for men to provide and achieve status, and for women to be likable, nurturing, and cultivate relationships — affected us to such a degree that even today, where we desperately attempt to close the door on the gender norms of yesteryear, they still live on via our mental health?

I’m not here (today, at least!) to argue whether these stereotypes and expectations are right, wrong, natural, or fabricated — I’m just here to tell you that they still exist, and still permeate much of how we think and what we do — whether or not you personally subscribe to them. And so, even the most forward-thinking men and women can fall prey to these gendered insecurities, and our data on mental health is shaped as a result.

Creating a problem out of nothing?

Evidently, all mental health issues are serious and should be approached with great concern, and yet also with acceptance and empathy. But do these gender differences propose an additional problem? Or is this merely a reflection of how existing gender differences that apply to all areas of life, also predictably apply to how each gender experiences mental health problems?

In any case, shouldn’t we focus on helping people with mental health problems directly — rather than dwelling on why women may have some issues and men others?

There is most certainly an argument for this, however, it could also be a case of putting a bucket under a leak rather than asking ourselves what the actual source of the dripping could be. Sure, putting the bucket there may be your first priority — but you can’t leave it at that. You must then take that next step to properly fix the problem, and figure out how to better avoid it from happening in the future.

The Bottom Line

And so, the gender differences in mental health could either be a result of nature, nurture, or most likely — a combination of the two.

From our natural instincts, to our hormone levels, to our upbringings and how we come to believe our gender is expected to behave — there are countless factors to consider whenever a gender discrepancy like this one comes out of the woodwork.

All you need to know is that anyone can suffer from depression, and for various reasons — including for no apparent reason at all. But all experiences are valid.

We now have a responsibility to learn more about this potentially devastating and yet treatable condition and all of the different ways that it can come about — in order to better understand how it can be prevented and managed.

One thought on “It Turns Out Even Depression is Sexist

  1. Deeper longer studies showed the findings were disparate and inaccurate and that likely as not, more men had depression than women but women’s was better known and discussed – hence why more men complete suicide than women do. xo

    Like

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