Whenever we talk about the human population, we almost always divide it into two convenient strata, male and female. When the issue of mental health of these two strata is being discussed the data and its analysis points to some to complex and yet interesting inferences. Before we begin talking about them it is important to point out something beforehand.
Until about the 18th century, people believed that only women could have a mental illness. It was believed that a woman is weak and feeble minded and lacks the capacity to reason or logic. It also didn’t help that mental illness was considered a weakness. Hence the narrative always became, “those who are mentally ill are weak. Since only women can have mental illnesses, they are weaker. The cases of men having severe mental illnesses were mere exceptions.”
This has been the traditionalist view of mental illness and gender. It is hence important that I point out that having a mental illness is not a sign of weakness and if a sex is more prone to mental illnesses, it doesn’t make them necessarily inferior or weak.
What do the numbers say?
Most people like statistics. They are numerical, hence considered objective. They are easy to understand and explain there on. It is within the very nature of humans to collect information and convert it into numerical data to have a graspable meaning. This meaning gives stats the ability to differ between various strata. The amusing thing about these particular strata of gender is that across all age groups, over a diverse range of illnesses, there is little to no difference in the prevalence of mental illnesses in the two genders.1
When we get into the nitty-gritties though, the numbers tell a whole different tale. Some of them are listed below-
- Men have an earlier onset of mental illnesses than women.
- Mental illnesses in men manifest mostly with anti-social behavior whereas in women it is reported with deviant ideation
During adolescence, girls engage more in suicidal ideation and suicide attempts than boys, who are more prone to engage in high risk behaviors and commit suicide more frequently.2,3
That last line sends shivers down my spine at times.
Why is it that men complete suicide more often than the other gender? Why is it that women ‘feel’ but men ‘do’?
I think that whenever we talk about the gender differences and mental health, we need to have a look beyond the scientific readings and journals. We need to look at ourselves as a society. We are a society that tries to fight gender differences while propagating them at the same time. There are so many occurrences when we ignore the feelings of a person because he is a man. There are other times when we downplay the problems of women by calling them ‘emotional’ or ‘sensitive’ as if these words were insults. The saddest part is that this bias and prejudice isn’t limited to the uneducated people but also runs in the doctors treating them.
“Doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women compared to men, even when they have similar scores on standardized measures of depression or present with identical symptoms. Gender stereotypes regarding proneness to emotional problems in women and alcohol problems in men appear to reinforce social stigma and constrain help-seeking along stereotypical lines. They are a barrier to the accurate identification and treatment of psychological disorders”4
In conclusion I would say that a lot of the differences that have been recorded so far have been due to extraneous effects of social stigma, prejudice and confirmation bias. There are differences in how men and women present with mental illnesses but that is also determined in a large part by the environment they grow up in. In order to change the situation we need to have better trained professionals. We need a more empathetic and patient society, one that wouldn’t turn a blind eye to a crying man or ignore the cries for help of a woman. I agree that it is not feasible to have gender neutral approaches but at the same time, it is also important that the two-pronged approach is followed religiously and with complete conviction. Only then can we start moving towards a more equal society.
- Wilhelm, Kay. (2014). Gender and mental health. The Australian and New Zealand journal of psychiatry. 48. 603-605. 10.1177/0004867414538678.
- Hawton K, Rodham K, Evans E, Weatherall R. Deliberate self harm in adolescents: self report survey in schools in England. BMJ 2002; 23:1207-11.
- Parker G, Roy K. Adolescent depression: a review. Aust N Z J Psychiatry 2001; 35:572-80.
- World Health Organization. Gender and women’s mental health