Does gender inequality make a difference when it comes to mental health? The trends are saying it does – here’s how.
We know that gender matters when it comes to many physical health matters. Reproductive health issues differ according to gender, for example, and male and female bodies often work in different ways, so even health issues that are common to everyone, like maintaining a healthy weight, sometimes need to be approached in different ways depending on gender.
But mental health issues can affect anyone. So why does gender matter? The truth is, gender inequality can make a big difference when it comes to mental health, in terms of:
- Risk factors for how mental illnesses are acquired
- How they present and are diagnosed
- What research is done into more effective treatment and prevention programs
- How they’re treated
Gendered Risk Factors
One important thing to consider is the risk factors for mental illness. In some cases, gender is an important risk factor. This is not because of the gender itself, but because of the differences caused by how different genders are treated.
For example, women are the largest single group of people affected by post-traumatic stress disorder. While the common image of a person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is that of a military veteran – usually a man – there are many things that can cause PTSD beyond spending time in a war zone. One common cause of PTSD is sexual violence, and because women are common targets of sexual violence, they also make up a large number of PTSD sufferers.
In addition to sexual violence and gender-based violence, women are also at greater risk of:
- Being low income and facing socioeconomic disadvantages
- Having lower social status
- Facing discrimination and income inequality in the workplace
- Shouldering the burden of caregiving duties for children, aging parents, sick or disabled relatives, spouses, and others
All of these factors can contribute to mental health issues like anxiety and depression – two mental illnesses that women are significantly more likely to suffer than men. In short, gender inequality in society contributes to mental illness in women. Reducing societal gender inequality could go a long way toward reducing the incidence of mental illness in women, and in the population as a whole.
Gender Inequality and Bias in Treatment
Gender bias also shows up in the treatment of mental illnesses. And it’s not just women who are negatively affected by gender equality in mental health treatment.
Depression, for example, is more likely to be accurately diagnosed in a woman than in a man. This is true, even when the man and woman both have the same symptoms or the same scores in standard measurements for diagnosing depression. This can mean that men who are depressed may not be given the treatment that they need. In some cases, women may also be misdiagnosed with depression when that’s not the case.
Women are also more likely to be prescribed psychotropic drugs than men. Prescription medications can be very useful for some patients, while others benefit more from other types of treatment approaches. But when gender bias affects prescribing practices, some men who would benefit from medication won’t receive it. In addition, women who would benefit more from some other type of treatment will be medicated instead.
How Gender Affects Seeking Treatment
Men and women may also approach the problem of when and how to seek treatment differently. Due to this, they may receive different responses when they do. While men are more likely to seek out specialist care and inpatient treatment, women are much more likely to disclose mental health problems to their primary care physicians.
Social stigma may prevent both men and women from seeking appropriate treatment for non-stereotypical mental health problems. For example, men are more likely to seek treatment for alcohol dependence and women are more likely to seek treatment for depression, but men experiencing depression and women experiencing alcohol dependence may be less likely to seek any treatment because of the social stigma attached to women who are dependent on alcohol or to men who admit to depression.
What’s more, even if a woman does seek treatment for alcohol dependence or a man does seek treatment for depression, gender biases can cause barriers to their ability to access appropriate treatment. In a more equal system, men and women would be able to access mental health care and support equally, regardless of diagnosis.
Gender Differences in Mental Health Research
Gender differences can affect which treatment methods are appropriate for a given mental illness. For example, certain medications can have different side effects in men and women.
- One gender may experience more severe side effects.
- Or, alternatively, a medication might be more effective for one gender than for the other.
This means that research – studies on the effectiveness of various treatments, clinical trials into medications, and so on are very important for both genders. However, women are often overlooked in clinical trials and other types of medical research. Even when women are included in the studies, there often isn’t an effort to analyze differences in outcome through the lens of gender.
That means that it’s often unclear how the research results are relevant to men or women. It’s possible, for example, that treatments that are more effective for men than women end up being given to both men and women because no analysis has been done on how the results differ by gender. In this situation, treatment solutions that may be more effective for women are overlooked. This in turn leads to women ending up with no options that are effective for their needs.
Gender inequality in mental health affects the lives and quality of life of women and men in any number of different ways.
Taking measures to ensure equality in mental health, as well as societal equality generally, will help to reduce the incidence of mental illnesses and ensure that those who do have mental illnesses receive better and more effective treatment overall. This, in turn, can reduce rates of disability, health care costs, and pressure on healthcare and mental health support systems.