(BlackDoctor.org) — As black women, we often feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, so it should be no surprise that mental health conditions occur more in women than men. According to EveryDayHealth, about 29 million American women, or 20% of the female population, are treated for a diagnosable mental health-related disorder every year, and an untold number go untreated. These conditions include:
• Eating disorders. Women account for at least 85% of all anorexia and bulimia cases and 65% of binge-eating disorder cases.
• Anxiety and specific phobias. Although men and women are affected equally by such mental health conditions as obsessive-compulsive disorder and social phobias, women are twice as likely as men to have panic disorder, generalized anxiety and specific phobias.
• Depression. Women are twice as likely as men (12% of women compared to 6% of men) to become depressed.
• Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Women are twice as likely to develop PTSD following a traumatic event.
• Suicide attempts. Men die from suicide at four times the rate that women do, but women attempt suicide two or three times more often than men.
You may be wondering what causes women to develop mental illness at a disproportionate rate. Well, studies show that the answer may lie in the following:
• Socio-cultural influences. Despite strides in gender equality, women still face challenges when it comes to socio-economic power, status, position and independence, which can contribute to depression and other disorders. Women are still the primary caregivers for children, and it is estimated that they also provide 80% of all caregiving for chronically ill elders, which adds stress to a woman’s life. Girls tend to become dissatisfied with their bodies at puberty, a reaction that is linked to depression. Girls are also sexually abused more often than boys, and one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, which can lead to depression and panic disorder.
• Behavioral influences. There is some thinking that women are more apt to report mental-health disturbances than men and that doctors are more prone to diagnose a woman with depression and treat the condition with mood-altering drugs. Women are more likely to report mental-health concerns to a general practitioner, while men tend to discuss them with a mental-health specialist. Further, women are sometimes afraid to report physical violence and abuse, and will endure it for long periods of time, which can bring on severe mental duress.
• Biological influences. Female hormonal fluctuations are known to play a role in mood and depression. The hormone estrogen can have positive effects on the brain, protecting schizophrenic women from severe symptoms during certain phases of their menstrual cycles and maintaining the structure of neurons in the brain, which protects against some aspects of Alzheimer’s. On the less positive side, women tend to produce less of the mood stabilizer serotonin and synthesize it more slowly than men, which may account for their higher rates of depression. A woman’s genetic makeup is also believed to play a role in the development of such neurological disorders as Alzheimer’s.
The mental-health differences between men and women are not yet fully clear. More research needs to be done, but fortunately, government mandates have encouraged federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health to respond to the need for mental-health research specific to women. As more research comes to light and there is greater understanding of women’s mental-health issues, experts are hopeful that targeted treatments will bring better results and more positive outcomes for women with a mental-health condition.