Women and mental health

// 8 December 2011

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I shall be blogging about women and mental health this month. I’d like to start with a vague introduction to the subject. When I was first diagnosed with depression about 6 years ago I didn’t really think of it in a feminist context, but the more I read on feminism and the more I see sexism embedded in our society the more I can correlate the two. Whilst the patriarchy may not be the cause of mental health problems in women I believe that we cannot ignore the psychological effects of living in a sexist society has on women’s self esteem and general sense of well being. For example:

What I find especially interesting, and what I hope to explore in my time as guest blogger, is the way in which men and women tend to suffer from mental health issues in different ways; ways that often reflect our society’s gender roles and biases and how these biases can affect the diagnosis and treatment of those who do not easily fit into these boxes. The WHO states “Overall rates of psychiatric disorder are almost identical for men and women but striking gender differences are found in the patterns of mental illness.” for example Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression even when they have similar scores on standardised measures of depression or present with identical symptoms (http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/genderwomen/en/). It seems the stereotypes of emotional women and reticent men bottling it all up are often played out in our mental health with these biases and assumptions leading to problems in diagnosis and treatment, often with shocking results. Whilst women make up the majority of depression sufferers, or at least those receiving treatment, men account for 75% of suicides. Many put this down to men’s reluctance to seek help and to open up about their emotions in addition to being less likely to receive a diagnosis and treatment. In addition women are more likely to have caring responsibilities and are often socialised to put the welfare of others first.

Whatever the reasons, and I suspect they are myriad and complex on many levels, these statistics illustrate that when it comes to mental health gender is an issue, and that all of us women and men, can benefit by addressing the role gender plays in our society.

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[Image “She” from Mark Cummins’ photostream; Flickr-Creative Commons]

Comments From You

Towards Harmony // Posted 8 December 2011 at 9:59 am

I recently went to a workshop on Feminist Counselling for responding to violence against women. One whole day of the workshop went into critiquing how psychology and psychiatry seem to be gender biased. SO this topic is so buzzing in my head right now and I saw your post.

We discussed how the socialisation in a patriarchal society and the life situations women might face just because of being a woman should be taken into consideration when identifying and counseling women with mental health issues and their attention be brought to the larger social context.

Psychology often seems to say that women are faulty by biology and therefore are more prone to mental health issues, which cannot be true because gender is so much social than biological right?

I am a psychologist and a feminist and at this workshop I learnt how to blend both. I really don’t mean to self promote, but it is a huge coincidence that I am reading this post today and just a week back I wrote one called Feminism and Mental Health Practise.

I do have some articles on the topic, have to look, will put them up here. Looking forward to hear more about your analysis.

MadamaAmbi // Posted 8 December 2011 at 4:10 pm

I did my M.A. in Feminist Therapy in the 1980’s in San Francisco. It may have been one of two such groundbreaking programs in the country. It was a very exciting time because academic psychologists as well as clinicians were writing about how power imbalances contribute to internalized misogyny, depression, domestic violence, learned helplessness, lack of agency, as well as exposing the many mental health issues that were (and still are) ignored and misunderstood by mainstream psychology. The literature on what you’re writing about is out there and you’ll find the roots of it in what was written in the late 70’s and 80’s. Turning a feminist lens on mental health followed on feminists establishing women’s studies departments and digging in their heels when their work was minimized or trashed by white, male academics. It required real academic sisterhood. Off the top of my head I can recommend to you the writings of The Stone Center.

One of the phenomenons missing from this literature is first-person narratives of navigating the mental health system as a woman, so I applaud your investigation and sharing your personal story. I also have much to say about how growing up in patriarchy has harmed me (and harms all women), and I used to blog about it as a way to get feminists to see their own internalized misogyny as well as to understand that patriarchy has deep, psychological roots. I found very little resonance and people feeling sorry for me. I even posted videos of me in the most horrible major depression I’ve ever been through, because major depression is a neurological disease that worsens when it is undiagnosed and/or treated by clueless practitioners. My brain has completely tanked over and over throughout my life. A YouTube commenter wrote that he’d watched all of my videos and that I’m a “sad and funny girl.” My answer: I’m a courageous survivor…not to mention an incredibly intelligent, highly educated woman.

This is part of my contribution to mental health education. However, at age 57, I feel very confident in saying that the relationship among mental illness, environment and neurobiology is not understood and here’s why: people don’t want to understand it. If they understood it, they would have to put themselves on the spectrum. Their accomodations to living in a crazy world might become apparent to them. Women, especially, would have to engage in difficult work in order to tease out how much they’ve internalized misogyny. Men would have to understand how growing up in patriarchy has harmed them.

Here’s my very long story short: If I had been a man, my functioning and demeanor would have been recognized as very, very, very troubling. The many times I said I needed to be medicated I would have been taken seriously, although in the 1980’s the entire field believed that first you do psychotherapy and medicate only when you can’t get anywhere with talk therapy. I know that there is still a movement against medication, but when you have been depressed since childhood, as well as misdiagnosed and undiagnosed, you need serious, expert, psychopharmological help. This involves ongoing tweaking of the med cocktail. Many people think that one trial of an antidepressant not making them happy means psychiatry has nothing to offer them. What people don’t understand is that meds combined with psychotherapy help. Changing one’s brain takes tremendous willpower.

Sure, patriarchy has contributed–no question! But the brain learns dysregulation–neurons that fire together wire together. These pathways prevent optimal brain development and psychopathology ensues. Having a feminist revelation does not cure real brain problems, although having these revelations with other women goes a long way in motivating women to change the world! On the other hand, having a feminist therapist really changes the course of psychotherapy. In the 1980’s there was a Center for Feminist Therapy in Berkeley, CA, ground zero of avant-garde everything; I don’t know what exists now…but I know when someone is clueless!

My aim is to both educate about mental health as well as to explain how patriarchy perpetuates serious brain dysregulation among both men and women. It’s a huge job. I’m happy to discover your blog!

Celebritynewscast // Posted 9 December 2011 at 12:58 pm

these statistics illustrate that when it comes to mental health gender is an issue, and that all of us women and men, can benefit by addressing the role gender plays in our society.

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