Until recently, the main images that would show up in my head when I thought of ‘women’s health’ would be gynaecological exams, menstrual cramps and pregnancy. I didn’t think, for example, of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) or of postpartum depression. Mental health wasn’t something I automatically associated with women’s health – that is, until I began to struggle with debilitating mental health issues myself. Those issues negatively affected my overall wellbeing and disrupted my whole life.
Mental health issues occur in both sexes, but in my experience as a woman with mental health issues, and reading stories of other women like me, I believe that gender plays a major role in the way mental health issues are experienced by individuals. Stigma around mental health is, unfortunately, still rampant among both men and women, and social constructs of men being physically and mentally ‘stronger’ than women – the ‘fragile sex’ – can deeply hurt those of all genders. However, one thing I’ve noticed is that for women in particular, these social constructs can put their experiences at risk of being belittled as simply a “woman’s issue” instead of a legitimate health issue – an obstacle I’ve come up against myself time and time again.
Many symptoms of anxiety and depression throughout my life have been ‘blamed’ on my sex: my short temper and irritability as a teenager – common symptoms of depression among teens – were “just PMS”, and my depressive moods were “just hormones”. I kept silent about the anxiety I’d been dealing with for over 16 years for fear of being seen as “weak” (weaker than already being a woman, that is) or as a “drama queen”.
Women who struggle with PMDD, for example, can suffer for years without having their disorder diagnosed and their condition taken seriously as something more than ‘just’ pre-menstrual syndrome. Women who suffer with addictive disorders also struggle as they are less likely than men to seek help for alcohol dependence.
Other facts confirm just how much mental health can affect women’s overall health, such as the fact that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teenage girls worldwide, and that women are more at risk of developing anxiety and depressive disorders than men. And although biology (what psychology refers to as “nature”) may have something to do with women’s predisposition to mental health issues, the environment women are raised and live in (“nurture”) can also play an important role. Environmental triggers range from a constant fear of falling victim to sexual harassment and assault to the negative impacts of social media on girls’ and women’s views of their bodies and their sexuality.
Despite having struggled with mental health issues at some level since childhood, it has only been in the last year that I began to see and validate those issues as serious and deserving of help. In therapy, I have been working through dealing with long-held feelings of guilt I have associated with my anxiety and depression. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that growing up I wanted to overcompensate for being ‘fragile’: I wanted to be seen and treated as ‘strong’ and to be respected by others just as my male counterparts were. Perhaps I believed that admitting, especially publicly, that I struggled with anxiety and depression would give others even more ammunition to see me and treat me as fragile and less-than. Today, I’m in the process of accepting my mental health issues – I take medication, go to therapy, and have seen doctors and psychiatrists.
For the first time in my life, I’m beginning to see these issues not as weaknesses, but as the medical conditions they really are. I’m beginning to see that if anything, dealing with them for most of my life has made me a stronger, not weaker, woman.
Mental health should become as common as pregnancy and menstrual cramps in conversations about women’s health – there can be no women’s health without mental health. In these conversation, though, it’s important to acknowledge that although women can have a greater biological predisposition to mental health issues, this fact says absolutely nothing about the character and the strength of women. Our biology can contribute to the high incidence of anxiety and depression among our sex, but by no means does it limit our capabilities or our right to have our health issues taken seriously by medical professionals and the people in our lives.