Women's Mental Health - How It Hits Different


Everyone can experience poor mental health - whatever their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, beliefs. But some groups within society will experience certain types of mental health issue more often than others, and it's usually due to a common trigger or shared life experiences. This doesn't mean the experience of depression itself is based soley on your circumstances, your gender or race, it's just that there can be certain stressors or triggers which can lead to, and prolong the mental illness.

There are many points in a woman's life where the risk factor of depression can spike due to hormonal, societal, circumstantial or biological reasons. Many of these triggers are rarely talked about, however, so we're going to outline the most common here, to try and help women know the signs and that they're not alone.

Women's [Mental] Health : The Tabboo Factors

About twice as many women than men experience a common mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, in their lifetime (around 1 in 5). This can happen at any point, and can occur due to a whole range of factors, but those relating to changes in a woman's body are still largely a taboo subject (yes, even in 2022). This means the link between bodily changes and mental health isn't made, and leaves many women feeling alone and isolated.

One of the biggest hush hush words is the menopause. Obviously, I'm not saying that every woman will experience these symptoms when she hits this milestone, but for some people who have a predisposition to experiencing depression and anxiety, if it runs in their family, for example, it can be traumatic.

If you think about it, it stands to reason that just as the huge shifts in hormones during puberty can cause emotional upheaval, so can they as hormones start to deplete. This isn't only during the menopause either, it can start during perimenopause and continue into postmenopause, with 42% of women reporting depression and anxiety during this timeframe. Despite being almost half of women, few are informed of these possible issues by their health provider.

Other changes in a woman's body cycle which can have simialr effects include:

  • Puberty
  • Hormone changes (ovulation/PMS)
  • Pregnancy
  • Post-partum
  • Perimenopause/menopause

Other Common Mental Health Factors

Of course there's a whole range of factors that can cause a crisis in mental health. Women aren't, as any 1920's black and white film would have us believe, completely at the mercy of their whimsical and dramatic emotions.

We can experience depression and anxiety due to a life event: feeling unfulfilled in our jobs, a neighbour making our lives hell, a break-up. These are all environmental factors. This is widely known as "situational depression" and can often be short-term, being able to pick up once the situation has changed for the better.

Some depressive episodes can be triggered by traumatic events earlier in life that transform and rear their heads as depression later on. This can result in the sufferer experiencing PTSD/CPTSD, anxiety, and a whole other host of other mental illnesses.

There can also be clinical depression which doesn't appear to have any root environmental cause or triggers. This type of depression can often run in families, pointing at a possible genetic factor. Dark waves of mood can wash over someone seemingly without cause or warning and hold steadfast for weeks, months or even years.

None of these are worse than the other, they just appear in our lives through different doors. Everyone is different, of course, and our experience of depression or anxiety will differ too. Therapy may help one person through a difficult break-up, whereas someone with life-long clinical depression may only feel some relief through medication. It all depends on your personal situation, but reaching out, talking about it and looking at possible solutions is the first and most important step.

Why Women Find It Hard To Reach Out

If women are experiencing poor mental health it's true that they, in general, are more likely to talk about it or reach out. This doesn't however mean that it's then solved quicker, or made any easier. There are still many difficulties for women getting the necessary help they need.

This is especially true if she is experiencing these struggles due to abuse or domestic violence; there's the fear of raking up the past events as well as huge anxiety around not being believed. Shame, self-doubt and even lack of self-worth are all barriers to women in these situations reaching out and saying "I need help".

Women end up feeling trapped in their trauma and find it difficult to see a way out, surrounded by a hostile society who often play down sexual abuse. A number of women also reported being referred to services which weren't specialised in trauma support, which caused fears that the therapy may exacerbate the symptoms they were feeling.

With already massively overstretched services, there's a real need to look at women-focussed mental health support from a fresh perspective and ensure that the issues the female population face are more widely understood and catered for. This doesn't just mean in the specialist sectors, this also goes for all other supportive services including GPs and other primary care providers, as well as the Police.

What Happens To Women With Poor Mental Health?

Well this varies, of course, and many women can and do eventually end up getting some support for their issues. They may undertake a course of therapy, opt for medication such as antidepressants, and ultimately go on to live a perfectly normal life.

But many women who can't get the help they need end up in worse positions down the line. If they don't get any joy from seeking help through the health service, many try to find their own ways to cope. This could be through addiction, using drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate, self-harm, unable to work or socialise, or in some extreme cases end up homeless.

A small proportion of women who have a mental health diagnosis can even end up in trouble with the law. Those with a mental health diagnosis are massively overrepresented in the prison population, with over 80% of women in jail in 2022 having one. Again, they can end up here due to having a much harder time accessing necessary help in the community; very often this can be due to poverty, unemployment and even homelessness.

Once they get out, things often end up in a cycle because they end up in the same generic support systems which don't have a deep understanding of the difficulties that women are facing.

How Can Things Change?

There's a lot of work to do, that's for sure. Helping to fix this problem needs to starts at a grassroots level; as women we need to start opening up to each other and having these discussions around our mental health. Yes, depression can hit anyone, as can anxiety, but sometimes the opportunity to share with someone who can truly understand your experiences as a woman can make all of the difference.

We need to be there to support each other and put every topic back on the menu. Menopause? Chalk it up. Abusive ex-partner? We're here for it. Whatever you go through as a woman, we need to be there to listen to each other and realise that we're not alone. These things we go through are shared and there is always someone out there who can, in all honesty, say "I get it".

But it can't stop there. We need to be vocal to make sure those in the healthcare system hear us too. We need to ask "why aren't there services which focus purely on women's mental health?".

Why is it that when GPs are diagnosing the menopause there isn't further support offered around mental wellbeing as standard?

Why is reporting abuse and sexual crimes still such a potentially traumatic experience for most women in 2022?

Why are so many women still being sentenced to jail time rather than receiving rehabilitation opportunities centred around their mental health issues and addictions?

These are some big questions and they won't be answered overnight, but if we start now, we can change things. It's not about being exclusionary, based on gender. It's simply about breaking down the barriers and taboos in society around the common triggers for poor mental health in women.

If we improve the services for one group of people, we start to make headway for everyone. The health service needs to view us all as individuals and realise that although there can be common themes in certain demographics, nothing is a one-size-fits-all.