New survey highlights mental health gender differences

29 September 2016

The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) series has had great influence on our understanding of how prevalent mental health conditions are in our society, how these patterns change over time and even differences between population groups.

So, in our research team, we were greatly anticipating the release of the APMS 2014 findings to see if things have improved since the last survey was carried out in 2007. What we’ve found from the APMS 2014 is a nuanced picture of the extent of mental health problems across the country.

In summary, for most mental health problems, rates have have either remained unchanged or deteriorated over time. This deterioration being predominately observed among women, of all age groups, compared to men. 

Common mental health problems, which comprise of different types of depression and anxiety, are a major public health challenge given that if left untreated, it leads to long term physical, social and occupational disability including premature mortality.  

Since 2000, there has been a slight but steady increase in the proportion of women with symptoms of common mental health problems, with this increase mostly evident on the severe end of the spectrum. 

The APMS 2014 results found that for all types of common mental health problems, these are more common in women than in men. The most significant differences were for general anxiety disorder, phobias, panic disorder and mixed depression and anxiety (i.e. common mental disorder - not otherwise specified; CMD-NOS).

Alarming

Females often having poorer mental health than males is nothing new. Increasingly the impact of poor mental health can no longer be ignored by the government and has become a cross-government fundamental priority. So why have we not yet been able to effectively address this gender gap? At the very least, we would hope to see levels stabilising over time if not ultimately improving.

Even more alarming, the 2014 survey highlights higher rates of common mental health problems being found among younger women (aged 16 to 24 years) compared to their male peers. In 1993, young women of this age group were twice (19.2%) as likely to have symptoms of a common mental health problem - at 19.2% - compared to young men - at 8.4%.
This increased by 2014, where these symptoms are nearly three times more common in young women (26.0%) than men (9.1%). The findings also show that nearly 25% of young women in this age group have self-harmed in their life. Why are we failing at protecting the mental health of 50% of the population?

Effective prevention strategies needed

These stark patterns indicate the need for the development of effective strategies for preventing common mental health problems in women. It is likely that these strategies will need to take into consideration a combination of a range of factors which women are more vulnerable to experiencing in their life time (such as domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse) which interact with one another and thus their relationships to one another explored. 

However, regardless of gender differences in reporting of mental health issues, the APMS 2014 shows significant proportions of women are experiencing poorer mental health and these elevated rates among young women indicate that if we do not intervene earlier these young women could continue to grow poorer mental health as they age. It is my hope that by the time the APMS 2021 is published, we start seeing a change in direction of poorer mental health in women.

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