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Stanford Medicine

Mental Health, Research, Women's Health

Why are women more likely to need mental-health help?

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What in the name of Betty Friedan is going on with women? By various accounts we’re on the cusp of wresting the world from the grubby grasp of men; and yet all kinds of studies (.pdf) are showing that we’re unhappy – and getting gloomier by the day.

Maureen Dowd has jumped in the ring to tackle this apparent paradox, as have all the female fighters of prose: among them, Sandra Tsing Loh, Hanna Rosin and Anna North of Jezebel, who griped, “Enough with this crap about women’s unhappiness.”

Apologies to North, but in light of a study (.pdf) released yesterday by researchers at UCLA, I’m taking up the issue once more. The report showed, based on California data from 2005:

Women were [about 1.5 times more] likely as men (22.7 percent vs. 14.3 percent) to say they needed help for a mental or emotional health problem (“perceived need”), such as feeling sad, anxious or nervous.

So: Are women actually unhappier or do we feel more comfortable asking for help? If we are unhappier, is our wiring or our environment (social pressures and expectations) to blame? I put these questions to Cheryl Koopman, PhD, a psychiatry professor at Stanford. Her answer, in short, was that no one really knows:

Women may be somewhat more likely than men to admit distress, but this does not adequately account for the gender differences found in reported distress… One overall explanation… is that men and women disproportionately experience traumatic and other stressful events that have a relational focus and which tend to be very stressful. These include females experiencing greater sexual abuse in childhood, dating and marital violence, rape, and even elder abuse, compared to males… However, another explanation is that women have stronger stress reactions in at least some situations, such as during marital conflict, when women have been found to have – for example – greater cardiovascular reactivity. There are also gender differences in the coping strategies…

Koopman concludes:

If we can eradicate exploitive and abusive behaviors that are disproportionately directed toward females as victims, this is likely to reduce at least a significant part of the gender gap.

David Spiegel, MD, director of the Center on Stress and Health, agreed:

There is some gender inequality in mental illness – women are more likely to report depression than men, though the difference is not as large as 1.5… Women often focus more on interpersonal problems (‘tend and befriend’), while men more often focus on accomplishment, goals, status. Women may also suffer more from the effects of negative expectations, especially in school or the workplace. They may also suffer more stress-related effects of physical inequality, and are more likely to have suffered physical and sexual abuse. So there are many reasons why women may be more likely to need and seek professional help.

Whatever the causes or prevalence of their mental health issues, Spiegel concludes that women’s willingness to talk about their problems and seek help is a strength.

Here’s to you, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Photo by angelicagaskell
Previously: Some 4.9 million Californians need help for mental health

One Response to “ Why are women more likely to need mental-health help? ”

  1. sonja mcclanahan Says:

    I do not believe woman are unhappier than men, we want to work thru our problems by asking for help. Even though we have alot more to deal with. We are expected to work – take care of the kids – pay the bills – take care of the house and look good. I read that men have the highest sucide rate than woman and teenagers. society still caters to the man not as bad and my generation is over the “boys will be boys” line i find it disgusting . we make excuses for them to act like well… dogs, When i believe boy’s come into the world sensitive – tempermental and very caring. Then we throw them into society who created a role for men that is sad. They can’t express themselves – no crying ,they think they have to be in full control, but yet they don’t want to be in control, and they fail to be in control because they are constantly trying to control themselves when they should communicate and let go. they want us women to do most everything. Men need a role of respect – integrity – classiness -and sensitivity because they truly are before we send them out to be coorupted. They need to take better care of themselves and help within the family so they too can feel real emotional rewards and feel like a producutive part of their family. Instead of trying to control the way the act – what they say – and their wives who pretty much can do it by themselves if their was equal pay and promotions. Woman are strong. Men try and tear us down i think out of jealousy.We can be ourselves and enjoy life while working -paying bills – taking care of the kids , the house throwing parties celebrating holidays and of course having babies.

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