According to the World Health Organization, mental health is defined as “a state of well- being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” Sounds like a daunting task to me. In our society, being a woman carries a full set of expectations. Looking a certain way, acting appropriately, being in a healthy relationship, having plans for the future, and taking on whatever else the world has to offer us that day, with a smile. For me, trying to live up to these unrealistic standards is impossible and not something I’m interested in. I am rarely realizing my full potential, coping with stress, working fruitfully, and contributing to society all at once. But feeling like that is still my responsibility as a member of society is a heavy burden to carry. I believe mental health is all too commonly ignored as the most important aspect of our overall well-being, especially as women.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has found that about 23.8% of women in the U.S. have experienced some type of diagnosable mental health disorder in the last year, whereas only about 15.6% of men were diagnosed with a mental disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health estimated that women are about twice as likely to experience depression as men. Women are also at risk for unique mental illnesses such as premenstrual dysphoric disorder and perinatal depression. There is no definitive answer as to why these statistics exists. And because there is no clear-cut explanation, society, doctors, and even women themselves like to blame their mental health on things like menstruation, innate personality traits, or just being the more “emotional” gender. This is beyond damaging—completely unproductive. How often are women called “crazy” for having normal emotional or psychological responses to stress? This branding creates a negative stigma and shame toward being honest about our mental health and seeking help when it’s needed.
Psychology Today published a great piece that includes a few reasons why women may have a greater prevalence of mental illness. About half of all women experience some kind of trauma in their lives; 1 in 6 women in the US will be sexually assaulted, and 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Discrimination may also play a role in the mental health of women, considering the current wage gap, culture of victim blaming, and sexual objectification in the media, for example. It is possible that hormones are a factor, but not in the way most people think. The hormones testosterone and estrogen are present in both the male and female endocrine system. So, blaming a “female hormone” is not a valid excuse. But women do produce less serotonin, a deficit which can contribute to depression and anxiety. Lastly, there are significant differences in the reporting and diagnosis of mental illness among genders. Women are more likely to report symptoms, and doctors are more likely to diagnose women with a mental illness than men, due to a history of gender roles in our society that could have its own article entirely.
What’s important is that we don’t let these facts perpetuate the stigma and shame. As women, we should use it to motivate us to take better care of ourselves and reach out to those around us. Easier said than done, though. It is not usually second nature to speak openly about our mental well-being, even to our physicians. For example, for two years I was incredibly sick. My digestive system had taken on a life of its own. I was constantly light headed, low on energy, and passing out regularly. I was tested for ulcers, food allergies, diabetes, Gastro-esophageal Reflux Disease and many others, all without any luck. The last doctor I saw finally asked “Do you feel stressed?” I did, of course—extremely. She took the time to discover more about my mental health and was able to attribute my physical symptoms to stress and panic disorder. The point being, it needs to be much more commonplace to talk about our mental health with our physicians. They should be asking about these things and we should be speaking up when we notice a change.
Here are some key signs or symptoms we should all be aware of, and if we notice them in ourselves or in someone close to us, reach out for help.
- Withdrawal or loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities
- Unwarranted, rapid shifts in mood
- Feeling disconnected, out of body or unable to connect with your surroundings
- General, unexplained pain or other physical symptoms (digestive issues, issues with skin, etc.)
- Changes in sleep or appetite
Don’t be afraid to mention these things to your doctor or even someone close to you. Catching a shift in your mental health early is the best way to prevent things from getting worse. There are also a few easy things to do to maintain or improve your mental health and keep you happy, productive and realizing your potential.
- Eating healthy—some nutrients have a huge effect on the hormone levels in our brain and can help keep you balanced. A good diet also contributes to self-confidence and self-efficacy.
- Exercise—boosts endorphins and can have a lasting effect on mood. Also helps with self-confidence, stress relief, energy, sleep, and lots more.
- Sleep—not getting enough regular, quality sleep can be detrimental to one’s mental and physical health.
- Stress—one of the primary contributors to poor mental health and physical ailments. You can combat stress by investing time in self-care, meditating, or doing any of the things mentioned above.
Women are often expected to be natural multi-taskers and assume multiple different roles and responsibilities, which can be a lot to deal with. It’s time for us to break down the barriers to being open about mental health and seeking treatment when needed. Always remember to take time for yourself, check in with how you’re feeling each day, and talk to a trusted friend or healthcare provider if you notice any changes.