When I told several people in my life I would be writing about feminism and mental health, they didn’t understand. “Why is mental health a feminist issue?” they asked. So let’s talk about that F-word, feminism.
To review, per bell hooks, an acclaimed feminist theorist, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” — for everyone.
The feminist movement has worked to earn women the right to vote, the ability to seek careers, and to make decisions about their reproductive rights, for example. Feminism endures, however, because it’s much more than that. The feminist movement also works to incorporate an intersectional understanding of identity by including race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, class, and age into its politics.
So where does mental health fit into the picture?
Women’s Mental Health Isn’t Taken Seriously
“Mental health is a feminist issue because women’s experiences have often been, and continue to be, pathologized,” says Dr. Mindy J. Erchull, professor of psychological science at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “Women are more likely to be referred to as ‘crazy’ for example — both in daily conversation and in the media. Women have also had typical life experiences characterized as ‘disordered.’”
This issue isn’t new. It can be traced back as far as 1900 BC Egypt, and the use of “hysteria” to sum up any woman’s health issue that deviates from expected gender roles continued well into the 1950s. The pejorative term typically was assigned by doctors who didn’t take women seriously.
“While medicine and mental health have changed a great deal over the centuries, hysteria is a historically gendered diagnosis that often served as a catch-all when doctors couldn’t identify another illness,” writes Christina Vanvuren for Talkspace. “It was extremely common to find women labelled as ‘hysterical’ defined more by their stature as women than by their symptoms.”
But here’s the hard truth about women, mental illness, and their symptoms:
Women Have High Mental Health Diagnosis Rates
The most common mental illness, anxiety, affects more than 40 million adults every year in the United States. Anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder are twice as likely to affect women as men. Of the 300 million people who live with depression worldwide, women experience depression twice as often as men.
Post-traumatic stress disorder affects approximately 7.7 million adults in the U.S., and women are more likely to have PTSD than men. Why? Rape is the leading cause of PTSD and 90 percent of adult victims and 82 percent of juvenile victims are female. Of the estimated 1.6 to 5.9 percent of the adult U.S. population diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, 75 percent are women.
While bipolar disorder is equally common in women and men, research suggests women experience rapid cycling bipolar disorder at three times the rate of men. Women have more depressed and mixed episodes than men as well.
An estimated 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. Of these, 20 million are women. Since 1930, there has been a rise in anorexia in young women between the ages of 15 to 19 every single decade. Bulimia among 10 to 39-year-old women tripled between 1988 and 1993 alone.
Finally, women are three times more likely to attempt suicide than men (more on this later).
Women and Oppression
At least part of the reason women experience higher rates of mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression, may be linked to the oppression they face on a regular basis, something the feminist movement fights against.
“As more research has been done, we’ve also accumulated scientific evidence pointing to the negative physical and mental health consequences of oppression,” says Erchull. “This has made it easier for feminists to argue to a broader audience that mental health is a feminist issue.”
In a study published in the journal Sex Roles, for example, researchers from the University of Missouri-Kansas and Georgia State University found a “link between physical safety concerns and psychological distress” when women experience sexual harassment, objectification, and violence.
The pervasive sexism women encounter can lead directly to symptoms of mental illness.
“Often people have experienced extreme violations of body, mind, thought, feeling, spirit, culture, or some combination of all of these,” writes Laura Brown in Feminist Therapy. “[They] have protected themselves by developing strategies of passivity; dissociation from body, affect, or memory; or self-inflicted violence.”
In addition, the gender role gymnastics women still must play take a toll on mental health.
“Increasingly, women are expected to function as carer, homemaker, and breadwinner — all while being perfectly shaped and impeccably dressed — while having less reward and control,” Oxford University Professor Daniel Freeman told Bustle. “Given that domestic work is undervalued, and considering that women tend to be paid less, find it harder to advance in a career, have to juggle multiple roles, and are bombarded with images of apparent female ‘perfection,’ it would be surprising if there weren’t some emotional cost.”
Why This Also Matters for Men
The issue of mental health and feminism pertains to men as well. They’re not immune from mental illness.
Men who are raped have a 65 percent chance of developing PTSD. Men are more likely than women to develop schizophrenia. And yes, men receive diagnoses of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, BPD, substance abuse issues, and eating disorders as well.
For men, many of these diagnoses clash with the idea of masculinity — there can be no signs of weakness. So when men should be empowered to reach out for help, they may be called a “pussy” or told to “toughen up.” Women attempt suicide more often, but men are four times more likely than women to die by suicide.
“Boys need healthy self-esteem,” writes hooks in Feminism Is For Everybody. “They need love. And a wise and loving feminist politics can provide the only foundation to save the lives of male children. … What is needed is a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of one’s unique being forms the basis of identity.”
Complicating the Conversation
Perhaps most importantly, like the larger feminist movement, conversations around mental health need to broaden to include a wider range of intersectional identities and experience.
“The mental health challenges for a white, cisgender, heterosexual, well-educated, upper-middle class woman working in management at a Fortune 500 company are likely to be different than those of a Latinx, transgender woman who doesn’t have access to safe housing, is food insecure, and can’t find stable employment outside of sex work,” says Erchull. “We need to complicate rather than simplify these discussions.”
This is especially true in the mental health field where any number of identity markers and the cultural response to them have a huge impact on our well-being.
“The limitation ascribed to people because of sex, phenotype, age, sexual orientation, disability, social class, or other characteristics by patriarchal culture become firmly woven into their felt sense of who they are,” writes Brown.
Feminism and Mental Health Now
Feminism has already taken steps to incorporate the mental health needs of a diverse population into its fold.
“Feminists do research on mental health, advocate for the inclusion and exclusion of certain diagnostic categories, train therapists in feminist and multicultural therapy, advocate and lobby for government funding at local, state, and national levels, etc.,” says Erchull. “Feminists are also working to dismantle oppressive social systems and institutions that can, in the long run, improve their lives, and mental health as part of that.”
There is more work to be done.
Access to high-quality mental health care that is attainable, not only financially but logistically, such as clinicians within walking distance or on public transportation routes, remains out of reach for a large percentage of those who need mental health care. Despite one in five Americans living with mental illness in any given year, 60 percent don’t receive treatment and 26 percent of adults living in homeless shelters are mentally ill.
Gendered mental health diagnosis, such as BPD, also needs to continue to be challenged, especially as we work to dismantle the gendered notion of having an emotionally-based disorder in the first place.
“We, as a culture, must stop using language and stereotypes that presents females as hysterical, emotional beings who are socialized toward co-dependency,” writes Vanvuren. “We need to dismantle the stereotype that men are supposed to be strong and shouldn’t need to ask for help, as well as the notion that they don’t show their emotions.”
This starts by taking a look at mental health through a feminist lens and challenging all of us to do better.
“Tarring every woman with a mental illness with the crazy brush, or just lumping us in with any person of the female persuasion who’s perceived to act irrationally or just in a way you don’t like, is archaic and silly,” writes JR Thrope for Bustle. “We deserve nuanced, informed responses to our disease, not labels that target some imagined ‘irrational’ aspect of our gender.”