8 Ways Mental Illness Looks Different for Women

women's mental health

As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, let’s focus on one of the most important topics to address when it comes to women and their health: mental illness.

How often, when we speak about mental health, do we break it down by gender? Not often enough, in my opinion. There are many aspects of mental health and mental illness that are specific to women, and which aren’t regularly addressed by those in the mental health profession. Whether in clinical research or in drug trials, it’s important to take into consideration women’s unique needs and the way that their health is impacted.

Here are eight ways that mental illness may look different for women than it does for of other genders.

1. Women are Twice as Likely to Struggle with Anxiety

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety affects women at twice the rate that it affects men. Depression is also more common among women. Some experts have explored the biological risk factors at play that create this prevalence gap, but research is not well-documented; besides the fact that we live in a patriarchal society and a culture that does not grant women full equality, socioeconomic factors like education, income, occupation, and physical health may also be determining factors.

2. Symptoms May Manifest Differently in Women

Just because two people have the same diagnosis doesn’t mean they will have the same symptoms, and for women, the symptoms of mental illness can look totally different from those of men. For example, studies have shown that the symptoms of anxiety may be more pronounced in women (partly because society gives women “permission” to express their feelings, while men are disabled by toxic masculinity), and therefore more debilitating. When it comes to depression, women tend to ruminate more whereas men tend to try to distract themselves from their issues.

3. Women are More Likely to be Diagnosed with Eating Disorders

People of any gender are susceptible to eating disorders, but women are far more likely to be diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia, or another eating disorder than men (about two-thirds of people with eating disorders are women). Trans women are even more likely to struggle with more severe eating disorders due to additional body dysphoria and dysmorphia issues.

4. Women are More Likely to Attempt Suicide

While more men die by suicide, more women attempt to take their own lives, according to the BBC, likely because rates of depression are higher in women. Suicide risk is significantly more dire for trans women, as nearly 30% of them make a suicide attempt as teenagers and adolescents.

5. Women are More Likely to Experience PTSD

According to the National Association of Mental Illness, women are twice as likely as men to experience PTSD, and 10% of women will be diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lifetimes, compared with 4% of men. This is likely due to the fact that women are vulnerable to certain types of trauma — sexual assault, rape, domestic violence. — which men are exposed to less frequently (though this trauma can and does happen to everyone). Men, on the other hand, are more likely to come into contact with traumas like military combat, physical assault, and other accidents. And when it comes to the body’s typical “fight/flight/freeze” response to trauma, women tend to fall more frequently into the “freeze” response — especially when it comes to the trauma of a sexual assault — whereas men’s bodies tend to react with “fight” or “flight.”

6. Women’s Mental Health Issues are Complicated by the Societal Oppression of Women

As I’ve touched upon a little bit already, mental health issues that women face are made more complex by gender-specific trauma, adversity, and stereotypes placed on women. These, combined with mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and others create a mental battlefield that is significantly more difficult to navigate. The issues compound. “As more research has been done, we’ve also accumulated scientific evidence pointing to the negative physical and mental health consequences of oppression,” Dr. Mindy J. Erchull, professor of psychological science at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, told Talkspace. “This has made it easier for feminists to argue to a broader audience that mental health is a feminist issue.”

7. Women Might Experience Reproductive-Related Mental Health Issues

Women (those who are assigned female at birth) can experience mental health issues related to their reproductive systems like postpartum depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or issues related to menopause. These are mental illnesses that cisgender men are not likely to ever have personal experience with.

8. Gender Biases Affect How Women Receive Help, and From Whom

Dating back to the days where female mental health issues were often grouped under the umbrella of “hysteria,” an ancient Greek term meaning “wandering uterus,” women have been overlooked by professionals in the mental health care industry. “Women are more likely to be referred to as ‘crazy’ for example — both in daily conversation and in the media,” said Dr. Erchull. “Women have also had typical life experiences characterized as ‘disordered,’” Dr. Erchull continued, whereas the same behavior from men may be seen as totally “normal.”

Women are also diagnosed more quickly and more often with “borderline personality disorder”; they may have their symptoms dismissed by medical professionals; and they are less likely to be diagnosed with more masculine-attributed disorders like substance use disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and ADHD.

Mental health matters, and women’s mental health matters. Women, and people of all genders, are just clicks away from accessible talk therapy with a highly trained, licensed counselor. There’s no time like right now, to start feeling better.

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