Good mental health refers to a state of positive psychological wellbeing that allows one to flourish and fully enjoy life and not merely the absence of mental illness. There are numerous biological, social, cultural and economic factors that determine the mental health of a person. One of these factors is gender.
Gender is a critical determinant of mental health and mental illness. It decides 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. Now the question that often arises is, are women more susceptibility to mental illnesses than men?
Mental illnesses affect both men and women but some of these are more common in women. Gender differences in mental illnesses occur particularly in the rates of common mental disorders like depression, anxiety and somatic complaints. These disorders, which are greatly predominated by women, affect approximately 1 in 3 people in the community and constitute a serious public health problem. Some mental and behavioural disorders like substance abuse, antisocial personality amongst others are more prevalent in men, while women are more likely to suffer from disorders like major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder etc.
Some problems are unique to women. They may experience symptoms of disorders at times of hormonal changes, such as perinatal depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and perimenopause-related depression. When it comes to other mental disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, research has not found differences in rates that men and women experience these illnesses. But, women may experience these mental illnesses differently – certain symptoms may be more common in women than in men, and the course of the illness can be affected by the sex of the individual. Gender differences have been reported in the age of onset of symptoms, frequency of psychotic symptoms, course of these disorders, social adjustment and long term outcome.
These gender differences are consequences of the cultural and economic set up of society. Certain different roles and responsibilities labelled by society to men and women are often the root cause of mental disorders. Those who defy these roles or are unable to fulfil the expectations, face displeasure from others that results in alienation and loneliness, which in turn give rise to mental disorders. Patriarchy, misogyny, gender bias etc. are some of the obstacles faced by women, especially in developing countries like India. These obstacles hinder growth and self-actualisation and result in psychological distress.
Depression, anxiety, psychological distress, sexual violence, domestic violence and escalating rates of substance use affect women to a greater extent than men across different countries and different settings. Pressures created by their multiple roles, gender discrimination and associated factors of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, overwork, domestic violence and sexual abuse, combine to account for women’s poor mental health. There is a positive relationship between the frequency and severity of such social factors and the frequency and severity of mental health problems in women.
Along with gender differences in health and illnesses, there also exists gender bias in the diagnoses of these disorders. It occurs in the treatment of psychological disorders. Doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women compared with men, even in presence of identical symptoms, similarly, men are more likely than women to disclose problems with alcohol use to their health care provider.
Gender stereotypes regarding proneness to emotional problems in women and alcohol problems in men, appear to reinforce social stigma and restrict help seeking along stereotypical lines. They pose a barrier to the accurate identification and treatment of the psychological disorder. This leads to many undiagnosed disorders and leaves those in need in a state of turmoil.
Some women find it hard to talk about difficult feelings and internalise them, these get bottled up and 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. Not letting out negative emotions also makes one susceptible to cancer.
To conclude, women and men both face mental illnesses but women are at greater risk and more susceptible to psychological disorders than men as well as they suffer greater gender bias as compared to men.