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Mental health problems affect both men and women equally, but there’s no denying that there are different factors which contribute to female and male mental health problems. There are separate social and biological factors in men and women which means there are gender differences in mental health. More women are likely to be depressed than men, and more men are likely to commit suicide than women, with this said we want to look at why mental health is different between the genders.
Some of the coping strategies may be the same, but finding the root causes specifically in women and specifically in men will help to tailor the support to specific genders. First up, we’re looking at women’s mental health, the causes, and the help available for women.
How does mental health in women differ from that in men?
Socially, women have stereotypically different roles to men. Women are the caregivers and tend to have more stressors in life as opposed to men, but we’re aware that this is very generalised particularly in the modern times we live in where there are more stay at home fathers or single fathers who are juggling the same work/life balance as women. Likewise, women are still battling social and economic inequalities which has a rippling effect on their mental health. If we’re to generally look at women in society they experience more stressors in work, relationships, and finances.
Biologically, the different hormones in men and women play a major role in the gender differences in mental health. With periods, pregnancy, and the menopause some women can experience mental health problems their entire lives right from the beginning of puberty as result of hormones. Hormones have a large effect on women’s mental health.
Causes of mental health problems in women
We’re taking into account all of the social and biological factors which contribute to stress, anxiety, and depression in women.
Periods and PMS
There are many syndromes and disorders associated with menstruation. This time of the month not only causes physical painful symptoms, but the impact on mental health can be extreme in some cases. Mood swings, anxiety, irritability, lack of energy and motivation, and feeling emotional are some common symptoms of periods and this can occur in the weeks leading up to your period which is known as premenstrual syndrome (PMS). When a woman is ‘moody’ this is usually blamed on her ‘time of the month’, it’s almost brushed over and not considered to be serious. In fact, menstruation can be a debilitating time for many women, for some it leads to suicidal thoughts and it doesn’t get more serious than that.
When PMS becomes severe this is known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a condition which causes extreme depression and anxiety. This can be exhausting having to go through this every month, and during this time you may feel like there’s no way out. If you’re suffering with PMS or PMDD there’s lots of emotional support from various charities or counselling and talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but did you know that the contraceptive pill can also help with symptoms?
The pill has been a wonder drug since the 1960s in preventing unwanted pregnancies and given women more control over their own lives, to the point where they can also control their menstruation each month, and therefore their mental health. The combined contraceptive pill contains artificial versions of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone which stops ovulation and balances out hormones to ease the symptoms associated with PMS. The great thing about the pill is there are so many options available, the most common being Microgynon, Cilest, Rigevidon, and Yasmin. You can discuss with your doctor the best option for your condition.
Pregnancy can turn your life upside down in more ways than one. There are so many changes you’ll go through, and if it’s your first pregnancy you’re likely feeling anxious about what’s to come. Although it’s a joyful time for many it’s common to feel vulnerable, anxious, and maybe even depressed. Pregnancy may trigger a mental health illness if you’ve struggled with issues in the past, or it may be a trigger for developing mental illnesses having never had problems before. Again, the changes in hormones are thought to be a cause of mental illness during this time.
Some women can also develop these feelings after giving birth which is known as the ‘baby blues’ when it only lasts for a couple of weeks or so, however, when this lasts longer and is seriously impacting your life it may be considered to be postnatal depression.
Postnatal depression is a common condition that causes severe depression, anxiety, sadness, trouble sleeping, isolation, and sometimes even resentment of the baby and difficulty bonding with the baby. If left untreated this condition can spiral with some mothers experiencing suicidal feelings. In rare cases pregnancy and giving birth may cause a condition called postpartum psychosis. This is a severe mental illness in women that needs specialist help as women have been known to have hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, confusion, and behaving completely out of character with loss of inhibitions and extreme mood swings, and in some cases has led to suicide attempts.
The impact pregnancy and giving birth can have on women’s mental health needs to be highlighted, it is normal, it is common, and there is help available. If you’re experiencing any symptoms of a mental illness during or after pregnancy you must visit your doctor to get the help you and your family deserve.
The ‘M’ word isn’t spoken about as much as periods and pregnancy but the menopause is a huge part of a woman’s life and it should be spoken about more. The menopause is an inevitable time in a woman’s life when menstruation stops, meaning you’ll no longer have periods or ovulate. The menopause causes a reduction in the oestrogen hormone which has physical effects as well as effects on a woman’s mental wellbeing.
The physical symptoms of hot flushes, night sweats, reduced sex drive, vaginal dryness, headaches, and aches and pains etc can be severe and debilitating for a lot of women and can seriously impact their relationships and work life, which in itself can affect your mental health.
Around 8 in every 10 women experience symptoms, some of which include anxiety, depression and mood swings, so with so many women going through this there should be more emphasis on the mental impact of the menopause. We all know about hot flushes, but the suffering that menopausal women are silently going through inside their heads is not discussed as much, if it were, women would be able to access the help they need.
Emotional support goes a long way in helping women with mental health problems, but there are other practical means of reducing the symptoms associated with the menopause. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is commonly prescribed to women who have severe symptoms of menopause by replacing the hormones that have reduced. While not all women want treatment or are suitable for this treatment, for those that are it can change their lives and really improve their quality of living.
Similar to the contraceptive pill there are lots of brands available so you and your doctor can find one that works for you, these include Elleste, Elleste Solo MX, Evorel, Evorel Sequi, Kliovance, Livial, Premarin, and Premique.
Social and lifestyle factors
We touched on this topic earlier in the post, mental health problems in women can also be caused by problems going on in general life, relationships, and work etc. In society the struggle of inequality still exists for women, inequality in job roles and finances, balancing work and family life can place huge stress and strains on women’s mental health. These worries and stressors can easily lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.
Domestic abuse is another leading factor in the mental wellbeing of women, this involves both physical and mental abuse. More women are likely to be domestically abused than men, in fact 1 in 4 women will go through this in their lifetime. Depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, self harm, and suicide are some of the catastrophic effects of domestic abuse.
As with both women and men, any personal traumas or stress can hugely impact how you’re feeling mentally. The above factors may not apply to you, your mental health is personal to you so if you’re not sure why you’re feeling so low or anxious it’s important to seek the right help so you can get to the bottom of these issues.
Where can women get help for mental health problems?
One of the biggest gender differences in mental health is that women are more likely to talk about their problems and reach out for support. Your GP is the first port of call when it comes to diagnosing your problem and being directed to the best resources, and getting the best possible treatment. In the meantime, if you’re struggling with mental health problems and don’t know where to turn, here are some charities which can help support you through your problems, give you guidance and point you in the right direction to getting better, healthier and happier.
- Women’s Aid - 0808 2000 247 (free 24-hour helpline)
- Refuge - 0808 2000 247 (24 hours)
- Women’s Health Concern - Menopausal health - https://www.womens-health-concern.org/help-and-advice/telephone-advisory-service/
- Anxiety UK - 03444 775 774 (Monday-Friday, 9.30am-5.30pm)
- Mind - 0300 123 3393 (Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm)
- Samaritans - 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline)
- SANE - 0300 304 7000 (daily, 4.30pm-10.30pm)
- NHS 111