It’s Not Just Sexism, Women Do Suffer More From Mental Illness

Why do mainstream mental health professionals give so little attention to the question of gender differences?

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Who is more likely to develop a mental illness: men or women? For the Victorians there was no doubt. After a visit to London’s St Luke’s Hospital for the Insane in 1851, Charles Dickens wrote:

The experience of this asylum did not differ, I found, from that of similar establishments, in proving that insanity is more prevalent among women than among men. Of the eighteen thousand seven hundred and fifty-nine inmates St Luke’s Hospital has received in the century of its existence, eleven thousand one hundred and sixty-two have been women.

But the Victorian view of female mental illness in both clinical and popular literature has long been critiqued for equating men with reason and women with madness, most famously by feminist critic Elaine Showalter, the author of Madwoman in the Attic. Such deeply embedded sexism means that women’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviour are misdiagnosed as insanity. And thus the “madwoman” remains securely locked in her attic.

No one, of course, wants to be accused of sexism. This might partly explain why today mainstream mental health professionals, psychologists, and psychiatrists give surprisingly little attention to the question of gender differences. And why the official line is that, though men and women vary in their vulnerability to particular types of mental illness, total rates are the same. The World Health Organization, for example, states: “Overall rates of psychiatric disorder are almost identical for men and women.”

But this is inaccurate. When you take a detailed look at the international epidemiological data, as we did when writing The Stressed Sex, the picture that emerges is very different – and pretty shocking. It turns out that in any given year total rates of psychological disorder are 20-40% higher in women than men.

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It’s true that men are more likely to develop problems with alcohol and drugs, and antisocial behavior is much more common among males than females. But that isn’t nearly enough to balance women’s significantly higher rates of all the most common psychological disorders, such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, sexual problems, and eating disorders. For example, the National Comorbidity Survey Replication ­– a large, representative sample of the general US population – found that 9% of women and 5% of men had experienced depression in the previous twelve months, with a staggering 23% of women suffering from an anxiety disorder as compared to 14% of men.

Do these statistics capture genuine problems, or do they simply reflect the kind of sexism we described at the beginning of this article? Psychiatric classification is a controversial area – as you’ll have noticed if you followed the recent publicity surrounding the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the so-called clinician’s bible. One might argue over the details of some diagnoses, but we’re in no doubt that these surveys tell the story of real distress, experienced by real people in search of help. This data isn’t illusory: it shows that huge numbers of people are struggling with psychological problems – and the majority of them are female. Some would say that men experience just as much mental illness as women: they just don’t admit it. But the scientific evidence to back up such an assertion simply isn’t there.

We don’t yet know why women suffer a from mental illness disproportionately. Maybe we’d see a little more urgency if it were men who were principally affected. Or perhaps the lack of attention reflects the relatively lowly importance of mental health: after all, physical illnesses that are predominately seen in women, such as breast cancer, have become major public health issues in recent years.

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What we do know is that social stresses make people vulnerable to mental illness, and research indicates that women’s roles may be especially demanding.Considering that on the whole women are paid less, find it harder to advance in a career, have to juggle multiple roles, and are bombarded with images of apparent female “perfection”, it would be amazing if there wasn’t some emotional cost. Women are also, of course, much more likely to have experienced childhood sexual abuse, a trauma that all too often results in lasting psychological damage.

A recent headline in the UK professional journal The Psychologist warned that “Studying sex differences is not for the faint-hearted,” and indeed we have personally encountered people who angrily reject the idea that women are experiencing more mental illness than men. But if we don’t face up to a problem we cannot hope to solve it. So let’s have the awkward discussions. Let’s prioritize research into the causes of mental illness and specifically the role that gender may play. And let’s end the discrimination, inequality, and downright misogyny that seem to be triggering profound psychological distress in so many women.

21 comments
Fawnz
Fawnz

I think this article missed a good opportunity to point out that men don't typically try to seek help for mental illness. Men usually don't tend to do this because disorders like depression are seen as a "female" thing. This sort of stigmatizes men from seeking professional help, or makes them silent sufferers who don't speak about it at all. Suicide rates tend to be higher for men, possibly because the current system we have for gender roles is unhealthy and doesn't allow men to express their vulnerable emotions freely. Which I think is pretty messed up, because violence & anger is encouraged yet we are surprised when the tormented boy at school shoots up some innocents. 

My disappointment with this article is twofold, because not only did they miss an opportunity to not make male readers who are suffering from undiagnosed mental illnesses feel further ostracized, but they also made SURE to make this an opportunity to bully women. The title to this starts "It's not just sexism"...but women are crazier (obviously paraphrasing). Really? How is that not sexist? 





Brightspark
Brightspark

Re: Panthian

On average, like for like, women are likely to be earning less in then workplace and getting less bonuses. Then add on the harassment of women on the streets and online. If an oven pride advert is the worst case of male sexism you can come up with then you need to thank yourself luck.

I am a guy btw and I do think a lot of fathers are overlooked by society, but your argument that women have gained equality is not true.

Panthian
Panthian

men suffer from sexism every bit as much as women. lets not forget the sexist oven pride advert. as for mental health, i am a male with mental health issues and don't appreciate that most women seem to want to be mistreated just so that they can moan about it. they want sexism just so they can have a moan and they always make out that there problems are worse then men's even though there exactly the same, regardless of vagina or not. why do all women want to be suffragettes just cos they want to moan. women are equal to men now. its men that r getting mistreated in my eyes. i know i speak for a lot of men when i say these things.  

if ur wondering who i am,

i am the silent majority.

IgnacioSanabria
IgnacioSanabria

Anyone can develop a mental illness anytime, anywhere and for any reason. Women are more prone to suffer from this pesky disorder, yet a woman have a cultural and biological advantage over men: They cry more often, and crying releases cortisol oversecretion.  Cortisol build ups are one of the main culprits for depression.

ShamsAci
ShamsAci

HEALTH AWARENESS WELFARE (HAW):

Men outburst frequently their sexuality far more than women do but the latter take this feeling too deep in heart and that may be the chief reason of their (women's) being prey of mental disorders such of whom latter have to be kept in lunatic asylum.

   - A.R.Shams's Reflection

jooby33
jooby33

Oh PUH-LEEZ.

When men get upset they repress their feelings and then act out irrationally.  90% of murderers are men.  92% of prison inmates are men.  Just about EVERY mass shooter is male.  Men will kill, steal, rob and rape even though the risk of punishment for these crimes far exceeds any potential reward.  

This survey fails because it's based on self reporting.  You want to know who has higher rates of mental illness?  Take a look at the gender makeup of the prisons and the defendants in criminal court at any given time.  The true crazies aren't taking the time to respond to your survey to tell you they're stressed.  They're walking into schools with assault weapons (Adam Lanza) or engaging in any other form of senseless, random violence that men so seem to enjoy.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

bitches be crazy

lurch
lurch

Women like to talk out their problems. Men hold them in until they snap and go on a rampage of some kind. Depending on the man's anger it can be anything from getting drunk or driving fast or worse. Most mass murderers are men, angry men.

Men are more allowed to release for their anger, let off steam. Women are supposed to appear ladylike and hold it in, or they appear hysterical.

louduignan
louduignan

That's because you guys drive us crazy!

EverleighWay
EverleighWay

Both these men should be fired from their jobs for spreading sexist bs. 


kris10mo
kris10mo

No, this just means that men are less likely to REPORT that they have problems and need help. So many men I know REFUSE to get medical help at all, especially not for mental health issues. A lot of this has to do with the historic and contemporary 'feminization' of depression and other disorders, and all of the patriarchal agonies and sexist stereotypes that go along with that - women being emotional, 'crazy,' etc.

In my experience, this does not mean that women are more or less likely to experience a variety of mental illnesses, they're just more liking to talk about them and seek professional help. My father secretly struggled with depression and anxiety disorders for most of his life, and watched me struggle with those feelings as well since early in my elementary school career. It wasn't until last year, at 52, that he decided to start talking about his depression with our family, as well as medical professionals, friends, and coworkers. I have known a relatively equal number of cis women and cis men in my life who suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, but almost none of these males have been to a doctor or psychiatrist about it. 

Suicide rates are much higher for men, which could be prevented if it wasn't for the stigma of mental illness and the pressure to keep up with what is 'normal' and 'masculine.'  These stigmas and societal expectations are not going to go away until everyone opens up and is a little more honest about how they're feeling. There is a lot of solidarity and compassion in knowing that you aren't alone, but you have to be brave enough to come out with it first. 

BorisIII
BorisIII

I wonder if women are more inclined to get some of the personality disorders from childhood because they are more emotional.  All though attachment disorder happens to guys more because stressed moms would rather take care of daughters instead of boys.  Which leads to boys using crime with instant pay to support themselves.

prioripete
prioripete

Mental illness is a disease of subjectivism.  It is the result of hard labour of the mind brewing up all those political schemes and personal agendas attacking social objectivism of society.  It is the lack of objective practice that fails to stabilise the holistic person, who descends down the spiral of deterioration by passion of material desires of the selfish ambitious person.  She attacks the very source of her wellness but her passion traps her in the asylum of no return..        

jooby33
jooby33

@cjh2nd 

Don't go walking into a school, movie theater, or political event with a gun now like your boys/heroes Adam Lanza, James Holmes or Jared Loughner.  Males like yourself commit the vast majority of senseless crimes, yet you somehow aren't the crazy ones.  Right.   

jooby33
jooby33

@EverleighWay 

Hey, can you really fault them for trying to bolster their egos, shattered from years of failure, by disparaging half the population based on the results of their glaringly structurally flawed survey that relies on crazy people to self-report that they're crazy?  Their desperate, last ditch attempt to assert their superiority over an entire gender may be the only thing keeping them from suicide right now (which by the way, men are more likely to commit, though that somehow isn't crazy since they have a p----).

Brightspark
Brightspark

@kris10mo No it doesn't mean men are less likely to report depression. It means there is a difference and someone needs to investigate why. Making assumptions like this is also bad logic.

justkelly
justkelly

@kris10mo I came here to say exactly this. Stretching the data to say "women are crazier than men" is, well, sexist. And frankly, it's bad science AND bad journalism not to point out more strongly the subjective nature of the data source: self-reported surveys. The stigmas this commenter mentions, which are more severe for men (they have a societal expectation to be "normal") could likely lead to men under-reporting mental illness compared with women, even if the occurrence rates are identical between genders. If Daniel and Jason Freeman intend to disprove the World Health Organization, they need to do so with strong scientific evidence, not self-reported surveys.

"Some would say that men experience just as much mental illness as women: they just don’t admit it. But the scientific evidence to back up such an assertion simply isn’t there."

I hate to break it to the Freemans, but this works two ways. The scientific evidence to back up their assertion isn't there, either. I also issue them a challenge: did they even try to look for any evidence that men are less likely to admit having experienced mental illness? I'm guessing no. The survey results could either be due to a difference in mental illness rates between genders, a difference in self-reporting rates, or both (i.e. perhaps there is a difference, but it's exaggerated by self-reporting). Unless there's a way to peel back someone's skull and objectively say whether they've experienced mental illness, we can only guess. Claiming otherwise is irresponsible.

pendragon05
pendragon05

@BorisIII Probably more likely has to do with the way girls are socialized in our western culture. Females are taught to put off their needs so that those around them can be met; they are taught that taking care of themselves is wrong; that they are inferior to males; they do not have the same rights as males and still don't. Been there, lived that.

Brightspark
Brightspark

@kris10mo Ps. A better sentence may have been: Does the research mentioned take into account that men are less likely to report depression?

BorisIII
BorisIII

@pendragon05 @BorisIII   I wonder if you got stuck in as a child care taker.  I wonder if girls genetically believe they should get what they want.  (ex. princess) So they will try to get the best husband they can.  Then grow out of it naturally having kids and wanting their children to get what ever they need.  Boys think they should have as much fun as possible.  (ex. parting) Want to have sex a lot which is fun and once they have kids they grow out of it naturally because they have to take care of their family.  Sorry if this bothers anyone but this idea is only my theory that may change by tomarrow.

pendragon05
pendragon05

@BorisIII What you described is known as the double standard for females in our society. Unlike boys, much more proper behaviour is demanded of girls than boys which is what leads many but not all women to the "princess syndrome."