Mental health problems affect women and men equally, but some are more common among women. Abuse is often a factor in women’s mental health problems. Treatments need to be sensitive to and reflect gender differences.
The same numbers of women and men experience mental health problems overall, but some problems are more common in women than men, and vice versa.
Various social factors put women at greater risk of poor mental health than men. However, women’s readiness to talk about their feelings and their strong social networks can help protect their mental health.
Women as guardians of family health
However busy they are, it is important that women look after their mental health. Traditionally, women have tended to take on the responsibility of looking after the health of members of their family as well as themselves. For instance, women often shop for their family and influence what they eat or advise their family when they feel unwell. This role makes it particularly important that women understand how the choices we all make in everyday life can affect our mental health.
Women as carers
Most carers are women, whether they care for their children, partner, parents, other relatives or friends. Women carers are more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression than women in the general population. Three quarters of people who care for a person with a mental health problem are women and the average age of carers is 62 years.
Mental health of women in mid-life
Women in ‘mid-life’, aged 45–60 years, may be juggling caring commitments for children and older relatives as well as doing paid work and facing physical health problems. At the same time, mid-life women may find themselves in financial difficulty as a result of lifelong lower pay, part-time working, family caring, widowhood or divorce. This combination can increase their risk of experiencing mental distress.
Women’s friendships with other women help protect their mental health, providing a source of support, particularly in hard times or at times of loss or change. Mentally healthy women generally talk about their feelings more than men and more often have stronger social networks of friends and family.
They are more likely to tell someone when they are troubled, whether it is someone they are close to or someone who can offer medical advice. Good social support can play a part in preventing mental ill health and can help people recover from mental health problems.
Women’s mental health
There are no significant differences between the numbers of men and women who experience a mental health problem overall, but some problems are more common in women than in men.
Women are more likely to have been treated for a mental health problem than men (29% compared with 17%). This reflects women’s greater willingness to acknowledge that they are troubled and get support. It may also reflect doctors’ expectations of the kinds of health problem that women and men are likely to encounter.
About 25% of people who die by suicide are women. Again, women’s greater emotional literacy and readiness to talk to others about their feelings and seek help may protect them from suicidal feelings. Being a mother also makes women less likely to take their own life.
Women are particularly exposed to some of the factors that increase the risk of poor mental health because of the role and status that they typically have in society. The traditional roles for women from some ethnic groups living in the UK can increase their exposure to these risks.
The social factors particularly affecting women’s mental health include:
- more women than men are the main carer for their children and they may care for other dependent relatives too – intensive caring can affect emotional health, physical health, social activities and finances
- women often juggle multiple roles – they may be mothers, partners and carers as well as doing paid work and running a household
- women are over represented in low income, low status jobs – often part-time – and are more likely to live in poverty than men
- poverty, working mainly in the home on housework and concerns about personal safety can make women particularly isolated
- physical and sexual abuse of girls and women can have a long-term impact on their mental health, especially if no support has been received around past abuses.
- Mental health problems affecting more women than men
Some women find it hard to talk about difficult feelings and ‘internalise’ them, which can lead to problems such as depression and eating disorders. They may express their emotional pain through self-harm, whereas men are more likely to ‘act out’ repressed feelings, and to use violence against others.
More women than men experience depression. One in four women will require treatment for depression at some time, compared with one in 10 men. The reasons for this are unclear, but are thought to include social factors such as poverty and isolation and biological factors such as the hormonal changes experienced by women. However, some researchers dispute the relatively low depression rate for men.
Post-natal depression is believed to affect between eight and 15% of women after they have given birth.
Women’s increased life expectancy means they are more likely than men to outlive their partner and move into residential care. This means they are more at risk of depression associated with psycho-social factors. Older people are often faced with more difficult life events and daily stresses than younger people and this may explain why they have a slightly increased risk of depression. Losses – whether bereavement or losses associated with growing old such as loss of independence because of physical illness or disability – can trigger depression.
Estimates suggest that 20% of older people living at home have symptoms of depression, rising to 40% for older people living in care homes. The majority of people affected are women. Those over the age of 85 are at particular risk.
Many more girls than boys self-harm. Research suggests that between one in 12 and one in 15 young people self-harm in the UK.
Women are twice as likely to experience anxiety disorders as men. About 60% of the people with phobias or obsessive compulsive disorder are women. Phobias affect about 22 in 1,000 women in the UK, compared with 13 in 1,000 men.
Two thirds of people with dementia are women. Risk of dementia increases with age, and women have a higher life expectancy than men.
Eating disorders are more common in women than men, with young women most likely to develop one. 1.9% of women and 0.2% of men experience anorexia in any year. Between 0.5% and 1% of young women experience bulimia at any one time.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Worldwide, more women are affected by PTSD than men, largely because women are exposed to more sexual violence. The risk of developing PTSD after any traumatic event is 20.4% for women and 8.1% for men.
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