Updated on 3/24/21
March is Women’s History Month. It’s a time to celebrate women but also to appreciate the unique struggles and challenges women face in their everyday lives. One of those obstacles is mental health, an area that has particular nuance for women — due to biological factors, such as hormonal and reproductive issues, and social factors, like discrimination, domestic violence, and societal inequality.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Women’s Mental Health
Mental health issues have always manifested differently in men and women, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the differences into sharp relief. Though COVID-19 has been more fatal to men, it has arguably had more significant mental health implications for women. Research remains sparse, as the situation is still evolving; however, it cannot be disputed that the pandemic has pushed women out of the workforce and has seen them taking on the bulk of child-care and other responsibilities in the home, resulting in added anxiety and other mental health crises. In a study conducted by CARE, a non-profit international relief group, women were almost three times as likely to report mental health issues such as anxiety, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, and difficulty completing everyday tasks. Many countries have also reported an increase in domestic violence against women during pandemic-related lockdown measures.
The pandemic has also created additional stresses in the workplace. In the U.S., for example, 78 percent of all jobs in the healthcare field (including nurses, midwives, cleaners, and other service workers) are held by women. This prevalence leads to a greater risk of exposure to the virus for women.
Mental Illness Can Look Different for Women
Of course, women’s mental health has long been an issue of grave importance, even before the devastation of COVID-19. Let’s dive deeper into women’s mental health facts and the particular hurdles they may face.
Women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety than men. This is a startling statistic, but it makes sense when you consider a social system rooted in patriarchy, that in turn leads to gender inequality and a culture of misogyny, as well as inequality across socioeconomic factors such as education, income, occupation, and physical health. Traditional gender roles play a part in women’s mental health as well, since the responsibilities of caring for family members often falls to women. At the end of the day, women have a great deal to be anxious about.
In addition, there is research showing that anxiety tends to be more pronounced in women because the culture of toxic masculinity tells men it’s “weak” to share their fears and feelings, whereas women are “allowed” to show “weakness.”
There are several conditions which fall under the umbrella of anxiety, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and social anxiety disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs after a particularly traumatic event, such as a car accident, a violent crime, combat, or sexual assault. Symptoms include frequent flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, and inability to perform regular life functions. Though these are all common in anyone who experiences a life-changing event, PTSD describes the condition when symptoms of trauma persist for a long period of time.
Though many people think PTSD affects more men than women because of the association with trauma following military service, women are twice as likely as men to experience PTSD. According to the National Association of Mental Illness, 10% of women will be diagnosed with PTSD during their lifetime, while PTSD is diagnosed in 4% of men.
While PTSD can and does happen to everyone, women are more vulnerable to certain types of trauma, such as domestic violence, rape, and sexual abuse. Research indicates that 91% of victims of sexual violence are women, and 94% of victims will experience symptoms of PTSD in the two weeks following the incident.
Obsessive compulsive disorder
Obsessive compulsive disorder causes a person to have obsessive thoughts and perform the same actions over and over. It’s far more serious and disruptive than someone who keeps their house clean or “obsesses” over a crush. Common compulsions include counting, handwashing, or checking on something, like whether the oven has been left on. They can become very disruptive if left untreated.
OCD occurs equally in men and women. However, women with OCD are more likely to develop eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, and they also report changes in behavior during different points in their menstrual cycle.
Women are twice as likely than men to develop depression. It’s believed that this statistic is likely due to genetic and hormonal differences in the brain during fetal development. Women are also more likely than men to develop eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia, in tandem with depression.
With depression, women tend to dwell in their feelings and thoughts (aka ruminate), while men generally tend to distract themselves from their problems, turning their back on the issue rather than confronting it (men are also more likely to deal with depression by turning to substances like drugs and alcohol).
There are several different types of hormonal depression that only affect women, including postpartum depression, perinatal depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (known as PMDD), and perimenopausal depression. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 20% of women experience depression after giving birth, which has ramifications both for the health of the mother and her child.
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes extremes of mood, both high and low. The high is called mania, while the low is depressive. There are different types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I and bipolar II. Women are more likely to develop bipolar II, which involves a major depressive episode of at least two weeks and a hypomanic episode.
While research hasn’t indicated a different rate at which men and women develop bipolar disorder overall, men and women experience bipolar disorder very differently. For example, women with bipolar disorder are at a higher risk to relapse and onset due to the fluctuation of hormones.
Hypomania, one of the symptoms of bipolar disorder, is a less intense form of mania and is more prevalent in women. Women are also more likely to suffer from depressive episodes than men. Women are more likely to experience rapid cycling, which is the rapid change from manic to depressive episodes — typically, four manic or depressive episodes over the period of a one year.
Women with bipolar are also more likely to develop alcoholism, eating disorders, migraines, and thyroid disease along with bipolar.
Body dysmorphic disorder
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) occurs when a person is consumed with anxiety about a perceived imperfection of their body or physical appearance. It occurs equally in men and women; however, women have a more difficult time overcoming it. This is due to the enormous societal pressures for women to appear a certain way, i.e., thin, fit, and conforming to traditional beauty standards.
Often, these perceived imperfections are so minor that others don’t notice them, but the person with BDD is so worried that it disrupts their ability to function in everyday life. They may miss work or school because they don’t want others to see them.
Women may be less likely to seek treatment for these mental health conditions, potentially due to women societal norms and the expectation to take care of others and “hold it all together.” However, there is no shame in getting additional help. Many of these mental health conditions are treatable with either medication or therapy, or a combination of both. Please know you do not have to struggle through conditions like these, help is out there. If you’re experiencing or think you may be experiencing any of these conditions, help is available. Consider speaking with a licensed online therapist or other trained mental health professional to develop a treatment plan that works for you.