Mental health - what do these two words mean and why are we mentioning gender here? Just like physical health means the well-being of the body, mental health refers to the well-being of the mind. Although mental illnesses still struggle to be recognised as serious medical conditions by the common folk, most of them have themselves fallen prey to poor mental health sometime or the other in their lives.
The definition of the word “health” cannot be complete without including mental health. Although we have achieved a certain level of awareness about it today, there’s still a long way to go in terms of its diagnosis, treatment, and most importantly, erasure of social stigma. When we discuss social aspects of how a condition is treated, who is more vulnerable, who is supported and who is demonised, we cannot help but discuss the interplay of gender and mental health.
While patients of mental disorders continue to hear things like “it's just a phase, probably you are overreacting; have a party night and you’ll get over it..”, their number increases at an alarming rate every day.
In a society having a huge gender divide, with rigidly set rules for each, one’s gender plays a significant role in determining one’s mental condition. Striking gender differences are found in the patterns of mental illness.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “Gender differences occur particularly in the rates of common mental disorders - depression, anxiety, and somatic complaints. These disorders, in which women predominate, affect approximately 1 in 3 people in the community and constitute a serious public health problem.”
While unipolar depression is twice as common in women, the prevalence of alcohol dependence and antisocial personality disorder is more likely to be found in men. This difference can be linked with gender roles in our society and negative past events and experiences. Now, let’s look at some gender-specific issues that play a role in the mental well-being of a person.
Women’s mental health
Various studies have shown that depression is more common in women than in men and women are also twice as likely to experience anxiety as men. Given the general social stigma around mental health and seeking therapy, in a woman’s case it is doubled by the society which places her under constant scrutiny, makes her a prey to evils like patriarchy, gender stereotypes, sexual abuse, and harassment.
Apart from depression and anxiety, women are also more likely to experience trauma because of sexual assault or abuse which leads to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Moreover, research also shows that 20% of Indian mothers are likely to be affected by postpartum depression.
Today, more and more women and girls are shattering the age-old stereotypes and gender roles and chartering their paths in life. However, what makes this journey particularly hard for them is having to fight the misogynistic mentality that is ingrained in society owing to the years of conditioning to think in a certain way. Women are subject to criticism and judgment at every step, harassment at the workplace, catcalling on streets, casual sexism among other things which can build up to adversely affect their mental health.
Certain biological factors also contribute to the state of women’s mental health.85% of women experience mood disturbances in the postpartum period. For most women, it is a short-term condition but it can become a serious and long-term issue for some who show significant signs of depression and anxiety.
It is normal for a mother to experience postpartum blues after childbirth; however, medical help should be ideally sought if the symptoms persist more than 2 weeks. Women with a history of mental illness or those dealing with stressful situations in life and relationships are at a higher risk of prolonged postpartum depression.
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Men’s mental health
How many times have you heard males being told to “man up” or “act like a man” and how many times have you heard them being asked “How are you feeling?” or “Are you okay?”. The latter phrases we don’t generally associate with men. When there is a discussion on mental health there is a large exclusion of men’s mental health. Like women, men are also subject to various stereotypes and are expected to check off certain boxes of standards to be called a “real man”. This definition of the “real man” is very flawed and primarily based on gender roles and patriarchy.
Men have been conditioned to be the breadwinners of the family and have this constant pressure of being financially stable from an early age to solely support the whole family.
In a world where crying is considered a sign of weakness, a man crying or being sensitive is considered to be out of the masculinity spectrum.
It is rare to find two guy friends talking to each other about their true feelings or showing their emotions in general. This leads to bottling up of their feelings in an attempt to appear strong on the outside. They often perceive it as the right thing to do but it is actually very harmful to their mental health. There is a need for more dialogue on men’s mental health and the “ideals of masculinity”. The society is quick to label a male as a “girl” if they show signs of being sensitive.
A World Health Organization (WHO) report (2018), shows that in high-income countries men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. Despite this fact, data shows that the number of men being affected by depression is less than that of women.
This can be linked to the stigma and silence around men’s mental health. This prevents them from seeking help or even admitting the fact that they are not doing fine and need help. What we need today is the normalisation of men talking about their feelings openly within their peer group and their loved ones.
Trans and non-binary mental health
Today, important conversations about gender and sexuality have started taking place. A part of our society is starting to realise that inclusivity is the only way forward but there also exists another part of our society which is still in the dark, clinging to their orthodox views about these issues. When we talk about mental health and gender, often those who do not conform to the traditional genders of male and female are left out.
A transgender is a person identifying with a different gender than that assigned at their birth and Wikipedia defines non-binary or genderqueer people as “having two or more genders (being bigender or trigender); having no gender (agender, nongendered, genderless, gender-free or neutrois); moving between genders or having a fluctuating gender identity (genderfluid); being third gender or other-gendered (a category that includes those who do not place a name to their gender).”
This is a marginalized community that faces rejection, discrimination, bullying, harassment, and violence very often. Moreover, they have limited access to opportunities and facilities as opposed to their cisgender peers (people whose gender identity aligns with their sex at birth).
A study published in the “American Journal of Preventive Medicine” showed that gender minority students are two to four times more likely to experience mental health issues than others. The most common disorders affecting them are depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal tendencies.
Studies have found that 51.4% of transgender women and 48.3% of transgender men experience depression and 40.4% of transgender women and 47.5% of transgender men experience anxiety.
In addition to the stigma, there is a lot of misgendering, invalidation, and presumptions surrounding the identity of these people. This results in their isolation, poor self-image, and self-harming behaviours among other things. The fear of mistreatment and the lack of gender-affirming therapists prevents trans and nonbinary people from seeking therapy and makes them prefer self-medication.
Edited by Bhavya Chauhan