Gender-based differences may emerge from biological, psychosocial, or more external factors. The latter refers to the cultural, social, economic, and political processes that ultimately lead to differing mental health risks between women and men. Biomedical factors alone do not determine health inequalities, rather, the presence and interaction of social determinants can influence vulnerabilities and resilience to mental health problems.
The recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare ‘Mental health services in Australia’ reported that more women received Medicare-subsidised mental health-related services and Access to Allied Psychological Services (ATAPs) program in primary care settings than do men, with the most prevalent group being women in the 35-44 age group. The report also found that 44.7% of ATAPs consumers accessed services for depression, followed by 38.9% for anxiety disorders, of which both disorders are more common in women compared to men.
It has been suggested that doctors may attribute the same symptoms differently leading to more diagnosis of depression in women than men even though they may score similarly on standardised measures. On the other hand, men are more likely than women to have problems with substance use. Whereas among adolescents and young adults, girls have a higher prevalence of depression and eating disorders, and engaging more in self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts more than boys, who are more likely to engage in high risk behaviours and commit suicide. The asymmetry could be related to women and men being socialised to respond differently to stressful events. However, the idea that women are more prone to emotional issues and men are more at-risk of alcohol and drug issues reinforce stigma which can be a barrier to appropriate help seeking treatment.
Mental health gender difference
Mental health problems affect women and men, however, there is a greater prevalence and severity of violence and abuse against women than men leading to trauma being a common contributor to mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and personality disorders. Treatments therefore must be timely, sensitive, specific, and reflect these differences to reduce the potential of long-term adverse effects.
Women are exposed to some societal factors that make them more prone poor mental health and wellbeing due to their role and status they typically have such as:
- caring for their family (children, partner, parents, other relatives, friends) can have a toll on stress, anxiety, physical health, social support and finances;
- juggling multiple roles as mothers, partners, carers, students, employees and running a household;
- being overrepresented in low income, unstable, part-time, low status jobs in retail, hospitality and caring roles affects ability to financially care for health and safety of family and self, and poorer working conditions can be isolating;
- media portrayals of women and girls influencing societal expectations and stereotypes that discriminate against women;
- having a longer life expectancy than men so are more likely to outlive their partner and face more stressful life events from bereavement, ageing, disability, declining physical health, and loss of independence.
Mental health is heavily gendered and influenced by many factors such as socioeconomics, gender pay gap, expectations, and discrimination. The most vulnerable groups of people in our society such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, women who have experienced violence and abuse, women with disability, or LGBTI+ persons, should not be left behind. Therefore it is important that mental health supports, services, treatments, and research are approached with gendered lens.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, ‘Mental health services: In brief 2018’, Australian Government, 2018.
Our Watch, ‘Understanding violence: Facts and figures’, 2018, retrieved on 12 October 2018, https://www.ourwatch.org.au/understanding-violence/facts-and-figures.
J Fisher, ‘Women and mental health’, Australian Psychological Society, 2017, vol. 39, no. 1, retrieved on 12 October 2018, https://www.psychology.org.au/inpsych/2017/february/fisher.
M Allison, A Kavanagh, and B Hewitt, ‘The gender pay gap is harming women’s health’, The Conversation, 2016, retrieved on 12 October 2018, https://theconversation.com/the-gender-pay-gap-is-harming-womens-health-68919.