Saturday, November 16, 2013

On the Gender Politics of Mental Illness

In case you can't tell, I am a vocal feminist and also really into mental health.

So today I think we're gonna sit down and have a conversation about the gender politics of mental illness.

Depression and anxiety are both, according to estimates, far more prevalent in women than men.  In fact, hysteria, a previously-accepted term for what we now typically associate with anxiety disorders, comes from the Greek hysterikos, "of the womb."  We typically associate depression and stress with feminine traits.  According to the World Health Organization, women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression and prescribed psychoactive medications than men, even when two patients score similarly on standardized depression-screening scales.*

Statistically, however, men are 4 times more likely to commit suicide in the United States than women.**  Clearly, the perceived difference in mental illness does not account for this massive difference in suicide rates -- if women are always more depressed, why are men more likely to kill themselves?

I think a large part of it comes down to the fact that mental illness and mental distress are seen as typically feminine.  As a result, if a woman is experiencing what is considered a typical feminine flaw, they are encouraged to seek help.  Men, however, are socialized to avoid discussion of perceived emotional weaknesses, and as such are taught to suppress feelings of depression and anxiety, rather than seeking treatment or coping mechanisms.

Around the world, however, there are also a number of conditions which create situations in which women are, more often than men, exposed to psychologically-triggering experiences that can manifest in mental illness -- social subjugation, sexual assault, and the stresses of childcare and family provision are all highly-correlated with mental illness, and these problems are more prevalent for women, across the spectrum.

Whether the statistics tell the full story or not, there seems to be a significant interplay between traditional gender roles and perceptions of mental illness, and that presents problematically in the representation of both females and those individuals with mental illness.

Rachel Leigh

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