2020 was quite the year. From a global pandemic to economic uncertainty to issues of social justice -- our mental health took a toll last year. A report by the CDC found mental health, substance use and suicidal ideation were on the rise during the height of the pandemic. But, in 2021, we are still dealing with the devastating effects of 2020. According to the Pew Research Center, 1 in 3 U.S. adults reported experiencing at least occasional sleeplessness and anxiety. Alarmingly, the same research revealed that in 2021 women were 1.5 times more likely to have experienced high levels of psychological distress compared to men and were 2 times more likely than men to experience depression.
Society expects women to be caregivers, homemakers, and breadwinners. And all that pressure can make women feel extremely isolated and overwhelmed. This is a key reason why are women are disproportionately more likely to experience issues associated with mental health. As a woman – especially as a BIPOC woman – I identify with this and wanted to take a deeper dive about why women are more likely to experience issues associated with mental health, and more importantly, what can be done to address this disproportionate burden.
According to the Mayo Clinic, several biological (e.g., hormonal changes as a result of puberty, pregnancy, menopause, etc.) and social/circumstantial factors can contribute to women's disproportionate experiences of issues associated with mental health. While biological factors certainly can, and do, play a significant role, I thought the social or circumstantial factors were more interesting, insightful, and useful to unpack.
1 ** ) **** Women are more likely to live in poverty, and to report money and the economy as sources of stress**
In 2018, 23.6 million women, or 14% of the total U.S. female population, were living in poverty. Unlike men, women experience many unique challenges that put them at a greater risk of poverty and financial hardship – namely, the gender pay gap and the motherhood penalty. Women are paid less than men. In 2018, the average hourly wage for a woman was 85% of the average hourly wage of a man. In addition to the gender pay gap, the motherhood penalty also puts women with children at a greater risk of living in poverty and experiencing mental issues. The motherhood penalty considers the annual wages women lose simply for being mothers. Mothers are more likely than fathers to experience career interruptions – like reducing work hours, turning down a promotion, or quitting a job. More than 40% of mothers have reduced their work hours to care for a child or other family member, compared to less than 30% of fathers. As a result, motherhood can cost a woman $16,000 per year in lost wages.
** **** 2) Women are more likely to care for a child or family member unpaid**
In addition to the motherhood penalty, women represent 53-68% of unpaid caregivers in the United States. Of course, motherhood and general caregiving can be a rewarding experience that can bring women closer to their child and/or family. But it can also take a toll on women's mental health. A recent CDC report found 1 in 8 women experienced symptoms associated with postpartum depression. For single mothers, coping with postpartum depression can be particularly challenging since they might not have a support system to share the load and detect the early signs of postpartum depression. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, of the 11 million single-parent households in the United States, about 80% were headed by single mothers. Single mothers are also more likely to be living in poverty.
** **** 3) Women are more likely to experience emotional, physical, or sexual abuse as adolescents or adults, and to experience depression as a result of their abuse**
On average, 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States every minute. That's more than 10 million women and men every year. According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Justice, 1 in 4 women has experienced severe intimate partner stalking or physical/sexual violence. Domestic victimization has been directly correlated with higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior. And while women are more likely to seek help from and disclose mental health issues with their physician, women are oftentimes reluctant to disclose a history of violent victimization unless the physician explicitly asks about it. This could be why married women are more likely to report higher levels of stress than single women. However, social isolation and loneliness, especially during the pandemic and the associated lockdown, have been found to have adverse mental health effects as well.
So, what can be done to address this disproportionate mental health burden on women?
After learning all this I was both empowered and frustrated. Women can be so strong, selfless, and compassionate. But, at what cost? It was frustrating reading all the potential bad that can come from being a woman. There's real emotion labor associated with being a mother, a wife, a daughter. It really gets exhausting carrying the world on our shoulders. Fortunately, countless female celebrities have started sharing their own experiences with mental health issues to destigmatize women's mental health and to call attention to the toxic societal norms that affect women. Selena Gomez, for example, opened up about her bipolar diagnosis and how therapy changed her life. She has become an advocate for mental health self-care and in taking the necessary steps to be proactive about her mental health and happiness.
There are several mental health resources available to individuals experiencing mental health issues. Mental Health America (MHA), the creator of Mental Health Month, also developed a toolkit that details six strategies to improve mental health despite all the challenges and uncertainty the world is experiencing and the unique mental health challenges women disproportionately experience. Check out these six strategies:
- Own Your Feelings
- Find the Positive
- Eliminate Toxic Influences
- Create Healthy Routines
- Support Others
- Connect with Others