Women and Mental Health

May 1-7 has been Mental Health awareness week.

One in three Americans struggles with mental illness but the rate is much higher in women.  Research shows that women are 40% more likely to develop depression than men.  It is not clear why mental illness is more common among women but doctors have come up with a number of possibilities.

Discrimination, Trauma and stressful life experiences

Trauma is common among women with half of them experiencing some form of trauma in their lifetime.  One in four women have faced an attempted or a completed sexual assault.  Reportedly, one in three are abused by a domestic partner.  Gender discrimination, violence and mistreatment undermine a woman’s mental health.  Stress is a predictor of mental illness.  Women juggle housework, kids even while working fulltime.  They report that they have to work harder to get the same credit as men and worry about the gender wage gap.  They have to deal with sexual harassment and discrimination in workplaces where these are commonplace.  These challenges can significantly affect a woman’s ability to cope and her self-esteem.

Hormonal Issues

Women produce lower quantities of serotonin than men due to differences in hormone levels and this deficiency can lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting

41% or women suffer from some form of postpartum depression.  Some of them are overwhelmed by the demands of parenting, especially in the early days.  I remember that there were times when I felt that I was drowning–in over my head.  Once I even cried out while I was holding my toddler.  Thankfully I had God and a very supportive partner.  It helped when he came home and I had an adult to talk to. Not all women are as blessed.  Research shows that women who don’t have supportive partners, experience traumatic births, live in poverty or a highly stressed will most likely develop postpartum depression.  

Gender bias is another problem women face.  Some research suggests that doctors tend to label women’s symptoms as emotional while taking the men’s symptoms more seriously.  So, a woman who reports that she is experiencing chronic pain to her doctor might be labeled as depressed.  This happens because we live in a world where gender discrimination exists and women are seen as more emotional and less rational.  

In many countries, the way health workers spoke to the women made it difficult for them to disclose their psychological and emotional distress.  And when they worked up the courage to disclose their problems, they were either over-treated or under treated by many of the health workers.

I read in an article in The Globe And Mail that women are getting the prescription that is available more often than the treatment they need.  They are getting medication to solve their problems even when science finds that treatments such as psychotherapy is equally or in some cases more effective without the side effects.  Bias in mental health care is a hindrance to women, preventing them from getting the proper help they need.  Not much effort goes into researching how drugs affect female patients.  While drug companies like to bombard women with their pills, most of their clinical trials have been dominated by men.  And the ironic thing is that the disorders most commonly diagnosed in women such as depression, anxiety and insomnia are the ones most likely to respond to therapy.  Most women are likely to prefer therapy over drugs.  

According to Dr. Marina Morrow, a Simon Fraser University psychologist who studies gender and mental health, “Women aren’t getting access to the range of care they need.”  She believes that an effective approach to this would be to include medication when necessary but in also offer therapy, peer support and pinpoint what social circumstances lead to the illness.

It has been argued that therapy is the safer, more effective and cheaper choice.  The authors of a 2015 study by Canadian and U.S. researchers concluded that, “There remains no sound justification to prescribe drugs without first trying therapy.  Dr. Cara Tannenbaum, scientific director of the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health, believes that “the way we fund therapies in Canada does not make sense right now.”  She wrote a letter to Quebec’s health minister to make the point that even if 20 per cent of seniors with insomnia received Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with is used to treat insomnia, the cost-savings to the system could be in the hundreds of millions, based on the potential falls that would be avoided.  Therapy saves on costly and debilitating falls and hip fractures.  

We live in a country where medication is favored over psychotherapy and women are more likely than men to be prescribed antidepressants and sedatives as seniors and as a result they are at a higher risk of suffering from adverse effects.  Hopefully more women and those in the medical profession will speak out against the bias that is prevalent in the mental health care.  Doctors and those in the health care system need to give women more choices when it comes to treatment.  It’s their health so they should have the right to determine how they want to proceed once they have been diagnosed.

depressed woman

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Making History in Science

Notes to Women congratulate Victoria Kaspi for being the first woman to win the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal, Canada’s top Science award in its 25 year history.  This long overdue win is a reminder that gender inequality is prevalent in Canadian Academia.

Mario Pinto, President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council who hands out the prize, acknowledged that this was a very important moment.  “It signals to girls and young women that Science is exciting and it’s possible to achieve the highest honour.”

It is unfortunate that it has taken this long for a woman to win this prestigious prize but Dr. Pinto believes that the reason for this is women account for only 14 per cent of the scientists who receive funding from the Research Council at the full professor level and only 9 per cent when the life sciences are excluded.

Dr. Kaspi was born in Austin Texas.  She spent her earliest years in the United States and Israel before the family moved to Montreal, her mother’s hometown.  Growing up, Dr. Kaspi did not have a particular interest in space or Astronomy.  She loved hockey and had an avid interest in logic and mathematical puzzles.  Her love for Science came when she was a teenager and took her first course.  She studied Physics at McGill and it was at Princeton University where she became interested in the work of Astrophysicist, Joe Taylor who would later win the Nobel Prize.  Dr. Kaspi worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before eventually returning to McGill and Montreal where she feels most at home.

Life is busy for Dr. Kaspi who is raising three children with her husband, cardiologist David Langleben which leaves her little time to do much else.  As a result, she has to work late into the night when she is better able to concentrate on her research.  It would be a tremendous weight off the shoulders of female faculty members if the universities would do more to support them so that they don’t have to choose between their professional success and family life.  When it comes to her research, Dr. Kaspi needs more flexibility. “Research is not a 9-to-5 job.  You get inspired, you have an idea, you’re dying to solve it, and within the confines of all these constraints that are imposed on you, it’s hard.”  At 48, she considers herself lucky that she was not a victim of the overt sexual harassment as a young researcher but is aware of the gender issues on campus.

We share the sentiments of Christine Wilson, a McMaster University Astronomer and President of the Canadian Astronomical Society who praised the selection of Dr. Kaspi as this year’s gold medal winner. “The fact that she is the first woman ever to receive the Herzberg Medal is the icing on the cake for me.”

Let us hope that it will not take another 25 years for another woman to achieve this honour.

 

 

Source:  The Globe and Mail