Data shows that COVID-19 has placed a disproportionate burden on women’s mental health, which is expected to last well beyond the pandemic. Why is this, and what can we do to protect and improve women’s mental health? The solution lies not just with women, but with us all.
Mental health issues affect men and women – but not in equal measure.
Research has revealed disparities between men and women when it comes to a variety of mental health problems. Data from the American Psychiatric Association, for example, shows that diagnosed rates of depression, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD and panic disorder can be as much as two times higher in women than in men. (Whether or not that statistic is affected by under-reporting in men is still not clear.)
While there are hormonal differences that can impact a woman’s mental health along her lifetime – from puberty to post-partum – the higher rate of mental health disorders in women isn't due to biology alone. There are certain life events and cultural factors that uniquely impact women more than men, and take a lasting emotional toll. For example:
- Women tend to do more. Research has consistently shown that women do more housework and childcare than men, even when they work full-time. In the aftermath of COVID, fewer women are expected to return to full-time work owing to increased childcare responsibilities. In fact, a recent report suggested that women accounted for about 45% of the decline in hours worked over the downturn, but will likely only make up 35% of the recovery.
- Gender roles. Socially determined gender norms (e.g., care giving, taking care of the house) can place added stress on women, and can make some feel like they have little control over important decisions concerning their lives. Moreover, the demanding juggling act faced by many women can compound this stress, heightening their risk of mental health issues.
- Body image. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, at any given time, 70% percent of women (vs. 35% of men) are dieting. Although there has been an increased focus on body-positive messages and diversity in the media, girls and women still hear and see messages about how they should look throughout much of their childhood and into adulthood. This pressure on reaching this “ideal” body impacts many women’s self-esteem and has been shown to increase rates of anxiety and eating disorders.
Barriers remain to women seeking help for mental health.
Too often, social stigma, a lack of support or a feeling of shame or guilt can prevent women from seeking the help they need. And, as primary caregivers, women may often put others first, leaving their mental and physical health as “last on the list.”
Changing large societal and cultural factors can’t happen overnight. But it’s something we must continue to talk about and prioritize. Shining the spotlight on women’s mental health may encourage more to speak up about how they are feeling – and get the treatment they need.
Shining the spotlight on women’s mental health may encourage more to speak up about how they are feeling – and get the treatment they need.