Nearly a third of Americans struggle with mental illness, but the number of cases leans significantly more towards women than men. Studies show that women are around 40 percent more likely to develop depression than men. They’re also twice as likely to develop PTSD in the wake of a traumatic event compared to men. Many people point to the more frequent occurrence of mental illness in women vs. men as a result of hormonal and genetic differences between the genders, but is this really the answer? Many in our field aren’t so sure about the specifics contributing to a trend one way or another, but there are a number of possibilities that have been considered.
Discrimination, Stress, Trauma
There are several external factors that we can point to when it comes to the likeliness of women developing mental illnesses. Women commonly face trauma, often connected to sexual assault. Trauma is a risk factor for a number of mental illnesses including PTSD, anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder and more.
Numerous reports show a trend of women receiving improper care in the wake of trauma, which only increases the risk of developing a mental illness. Women being blamed for their own rape or abuse, harassment in public, simulated violence in the media, and other issues contribute to the likeliness of developing a mental illness.
Unfortunately, even in 2016, we continue to see discrimination increasing stress on women in public, in the workplace and at home. Some women take up more than their fair share of work around the home and childcare in addition to holding full-time jobs. In the workplace, it’s hard for women to receive the same amount of credit and financial compensation when doing the same job as a man. The stresses of these realities often hinder a woman’s ability to cope and maintain positive self-esteem.
Hormones are a commonly misunderstood factor when it comes to mental illness in women. Many people believe estrogen is an exclusively female hormone while testosterone is an exclusively male hormone. Men and women both carry these hormones, but the differences lie in how much they carry based on age, health, and other bodily factors. Hormone levels may cause a difference in the quantity of serotonin that women hold vs. men. A deficiency of serotonin has been connected to several mental health issues including depression and anxiety.
Pregnancy and childbirth are known to cause women to face psychological changes. Over 40 percent of all women face postpartum depression. Psychological shifts aren’t solely responsible for causing mental illness in women, though. The demands of parenting, especially during a child’s infancy, can be overwhelming. Lack of support from a spouse, birth complications, poverty, and those who tend to face more stress are under increased risk of developing postpartum depression.
Reporting and Diagnosis
Assumptions tend to lean towards women being more emotional than men, but the research on this statement is more murky than clear. We do know that men will not show their emotions as often compared to women. This may lead men to not seek mental health treatment as often compared to women. A quarter of all women will receive treatment for depression at some point in their life compared to only 10 percent of men. While it’s possible this is entirely due to natural gender differences, there’s definitely reporting and cultural implications affecting the results as well.
Diagnosis wise, women are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness by doctors than men and there are a number of reasons why. Some evidence points to men’s mental health symptoms as not fitting into the box of standard diagnosis criteria. Some men may exhibit anger as a result of depression, which is not defined as an official symptom. A man complaining about anger, which often covers up other symptoms that are official signs of depression, may then have a lesser chance of being diagnosed with the disorder.
Some doctors are known to have a bias about mental illness in women, causing them to be more eager in diagnosing them with one. If a man reports intense sadness to his doctor, he’s more likely to be asked about his lifestyle, recommended changes, and then told to return later for a checkup. A woman is more likely to be diagnosed from the beginning due to this bias. Additionally, there’s the unfortunate reality that doctors show their bias implicitly and indirectly without the female patient being aware. Studies show some doctors lean towards diagnosing women’s symptoms as just mood swings and take men’s symptoms more seriously.
It’s important to remember that bias from doctors is never intentional, nor are they misdiagnosing patients as a result of it either. It’s just widely accepted in the medical community that gender discrimination is a very real variable with diagnosing these conditions. Research is always ongoing and someday, we may find more definitive answers as to why mental illness cases are reported more in women than men. Until then, we’ll continue to refer to these variables in addition to our research.
At the Holiner Psychiatric Group, our doctors are experienced in providing diagnosis and treatment for a wide spectrum of mental illnesses including anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, mood disorders, and eating disorders. We remain up-to-date on the latest research in the psychiatric field and also regularly provide education and training to other doctors in the metroplex. Our standards of professionalism are second to none. If you would like to get started and see a doctor, contact us today.