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Women & Mental Health

Women & Mental Health

It’s important to remember that gender isn’t binary. However, people who identify as women—regardless of their assigned sex at birth—can experience particular mental health challenges due to societal expectations, cultural norms, discrimination, and trauma.

Men and women struggle with many of the same mental health conditions, but they tend to experience them differently. Women often face obstacles in getting help and require different treatments than what would typically be recommended for men.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in women, as well as more emotional and behavioral problems in young girls. The increase in mental health issues is even more dramatic—two to three times higher—for women who were already facing challenges such as food insecurity, interpersonal violence, unstable housing, and lack of access to public services.

How does being a woman affect mental health?

Because everyone experiences gender differently, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Being a woman can be a source of strength and pride. It can also mean facing gender-based discrimination or violence.

Countless factors affect women’s mental health, and each woman’s experience is unique. But in general, physiology, identity, and cultural norms are major influences.

Physiological factors

Our bodies change throughout our lives, and these changes can affect our mental health. Certain physical shifts are common for cisgender women (women who identify with their sex assigned at birth), as well as some transgender men (men who were designated female at birth) and nonbinary people whose sex assigned at birth was female.

Hormonal changes during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause can affect your body and mood, as well as contribute to conditions like anxiety and depression.

If you plan to have a child and experience infertility or perinatal loss, you may feel distress about your body not working the way it’s “supposed” to, anxiety about whether you’ll be able to get pregnant or carry a pregnancy to term, or grief over a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Pregnancy and the postpartum period can cause expecting and new parents to experience the “baby blues,” a milder form of postpartum depression that often goes away within a few weeks after delivery. Sometimes, though, postpartum depression can linger for months—even years—and have a serious impact if left untreated. One in 10 new mothers experiences postpartum depression.

Identity factors

Our views of who we are and our place in the world play a big role in our mental health.

Sexuality—the way we experience and express ourselves sexually—can be a source of great pleasure and happiness, but it can also be associated with stress. LGBTQIA+ women may face bigotry and discrimination around their sexual identity. Women, girls, and LGBTQIA+ people face high rates of sexual violence and harassment, which both have wide-ranging mental health effects.

For transgender women (women who were assigned male at birth) and transgender men, transitioning offers a positive, life-changing affirmation of identity. At the same time, it can be a long process full of physical and emotional challenges. Facing transphobia or discrimination from your family or community can impact your mental health.

Nonbinary people who were assigned female at birth may have similar joys and challenges to transgender men and women, as well as pressure to conform to traditional gender roles and norms.

For women of color, dealing with intersecting forms of discrimination based on both gender and race can lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, and stress.

Women with disabilities may be faced with the additional challenges of discrimination, ableism, and lack of accessibility, which can also lead to feelings of isolation.

Cultural factors

The way society views and treats women can have a huge impact on their mental health. Norms and expectations for girls and women can carry negative or damaging messages, and internalizing those messages can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. While progress is being made toward equity, women still cope with many forms of injustice.

Sexism is a form of discrimination based on the belief that one gender, typically men, is superior to another. Related to this is patriarchy—a social system where men hold primary power and privilege, and where institutional policies and systemic practices put men at an advantage. Examples include the gender pay gap, the frequency of sexual harassment and assault, and a lack of women in leadership positions.

Racism can run parallel with sexism to make an even bigger impact on women of color. Racism appears in forms that range from microaggressions—small but cumulatively damaging acts of discrimination—to systemic racism, a type of marginalization that’s deeply established in institutions and communities. In part due to systemic discrimination in health care, Black women are half as likely as White women to seek help for their mental health.

Whether it’s physical, emotional, sexual, or financial, abuse contributes to mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Abuse happens to people of all genders, but girls and women are at a higher risk for many of these forms of violence.7

Child marriage, a type of forced marriage that disproportionately affects girls, prevents girls and women around the world from living full lives.8 It’s associated with mental health concerns including anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Poverty tends to be higher among women—especially women of color, disabled women, and LQBTQIA+ women.9 Contributing factors include barriers to education, gender pay disparities, unpaid or undervalued domestic work, job insecurity, and lack of workplace protections.

Health care disparities mean that women and girls have a harder time accessing quality treatment for their physical and mental health. The medical industry tends to favor male symptoms over female symptoms to diagnose conditions, underfund research for diseases that mostly affect women, dismiss female pain or self-reported symptoms as overblown or hysterical, and exclude or underrepresent female participants in clinical trials.10, 11, 12 As a result, women and girls are often misdiagnosed, underdiagnosed, treated ineffectively, not treated at all, or subjected to dangerous side effects.

Mental health stigmas cause many women to avoid seeking help.13 Stereotypes of women with mental illness as weak, unstable, or “crazy” can also make it harder for women to find support from family and friends.

Objectification—such as valuing a woman primarily for how she looks and her sex appeal—is common in the media and can fuel body image issues, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.

Reproductive rights include, among other things, access to contraception, safe and legal abortion, and maternal health care. Going without these services can lead to unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and poor maternal health, all of which can worsen mental health.

Motherhood can be both rewarding and stressful. Society usually disregards the support mothers need, and many women end up shouldering the majority of caregiving and domestic work—often while continuing to work outside the home. Women who struggle to care for their children may feel isolated or guilty. Lack of social support also puts new mothers at a higher risk of postpartum depression.14 In related concerns, women may experience discrimination and judgment for not being mothers or feel disregarded once their children become adults.

How age affects women’s mental health

Mental health problems can happen at any age, but certain changes in different stages of life can increase the risk for women.

From birth through childhood, girls are under pressure to conform to their community’s gender norms. They may be socialized to be quiet, obedient, focused on their appearance, or unassertive, and they may feel they have to suppress parts of themselves to be loved or accepted.

During adolescence, girls may face new forms of gender-related discrimination, as well as pressure to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty, academic success, or popularity. A 2021 CDC survey reported that adolescent girls are faring worse than adolescent boys “across almost all measures of substance use, experiences of violence, mental health, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.”

In adulthood, many women encounter stressors like financial insecurity, work-life balance issues, and relationship challenges. If they become parents, then hormonal changes, lack of sleep, and pregnancy or postpartum stress can affect their mental health. In midlife, high stress levels may cause poor sleep, increased health problems, and lower overall life satisfaction.

Women in their senior years experience age-related changes like retirement, widowhood, and declining health. They may also care for grandchildren or aging loved ones, which can be physically and emotionally demanding.

Common mental health concerns for women

Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Women are also more likely to attempt suicide than men, although men are more likely to die from it.

If you’re in crisis, help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: Call the 988 Lifeline at 988 or text HOME to 741741 for the Crisis Text Line.

How women can protect their mental health

Because every person is different, there’s no universal solution for managing your mental health. That said, there are some steps all women can take to promote their well-being, no matter where they are in their journey. Here are a few places to start:

Identify and manage stressors. Reflect on your daily life, make a list of things that contribute to your stress, and ask yourself how you can minimize, eliminate, or cope with them.

Build and maintain strong relationships. Women who prioritize their friendships are more likely to feel satisfied with their lives.21 These social ties serve as a support system that can help buffer against stress, depression, and anxiety.

Get regular exercise. Regular physical activity—going on a walk, dancing, gardening, swimming, doing yoga—can help reduce stress, improve sleep, and boost physical self-esteem.

Make time for self-care. Prioritizing your mental, emotional, social, and physical health is something you can learn in therapy and also do on your own. Self-care includes getting good rest, eating well, connecting with others, spending time outside, seeking care when you’re hurting or sick, and making time for activities that bring you joy.

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