Mid-life women and mental health

Preliminary findings in a study carried out by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver have suggested that older mothers are more likely to suffer from depression than women who have children at a younger age.

Researchers found that women aged between 40 and 44 years old were five times as likely to have been depressed compared with younger women.

We have known for a long time the connection between new mothers and depressive illnesses, but research into older mothers has been pretty scarce. Indeed there has been relatively little detailed research into the mental health of middle-aged women in general. This is deeply worrying when we consider that the largest increase in the rate of common mental disorders between 1993 and 2007 was observed in women aged 45-64, among whom the rate rose by about a fifth.

The issue of mid-life women and mental illness is something we addressed at a few years back in our report Women at the Crossroads. The report looks specifically at women between the ages of 45 and 60 and the unique stresses placed on women in mid-life.

And these stresses are many and varied.

Significant life-changing events such as divorce and widowhood are faced by many mid-life women, and both exact a considerable mental health cost on women. It is also at this stage of life that women may be obliged to come to terms with decisions made earlier in life. For example, as a consequence of working part-time to look after children, a woman’s pension may be significantly lower. And many women at this time of life may still be looking after grown-up children who cannot leave home as they have no job and can’t afford their own accommodation, while also having to care for aging, and ailing, parents.

On top of this are the physical and mental pressures of the menopause.

Above all, it is the combination of these stresses, and the challenge of juggling them all at the same time, that puts the mental health of women in mid-life at particular risk.

So what needs to be done to address this issue? Well, the answer lies in the usual three areas of research, policy and services. This means undertaking more research into the mental health of women in mid-life, so we understand the problems they can face better; formulating policy that focuses on overcoming those problems; and developing services that support and meet their needs. Only progress on all these will ensure that millions of women will move into later life mentally healthy and emotionally resilient.