Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sexism's toll on women's mental health

In 2013, TIME magazine published an article entitled "It's Not Just Sexism, Women Do Suffer More From Mental Illness." The article explained how mental health professionals tend to downplay the gendered difference in rates of mental illness for fear of being called sexist (hence, the title of the article). The article further stated that rates of mental illness among women are 20-40% higher than among men in any given year. Indeed, women are 70% more likely to experience depression and are twice as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder. The TIME article acknowledged that some possible explanations for the differences in rates of mental illness between men and women might be the fact that women experience greater obstacles to career advancement, are pressured to balance multiple roles, and consistently fall short of an unattainable standard of beauty force-fed them by the media.

Interestingly, a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Georgia State University found that behaviors such as cat-calling, sexual objectification, and sexual harassment have a direct connection to mental illness among women. The study supports the notion that women who are exposed to such harassment tend to live in a state of hyper-vigilance, which forces women to constrain their behaviors and leads to increased levels of anxiety and psychological distress.

Another recent study found that women in positions of authority are more likely to show symptoms of depression than their male counterparts and women "down the ladder." The study's co-author explained that, theoretically, women with high-paying jobs and successful careers should enjoy better mental health. Instead, their authority comes with a psychological cost:
Male leadership is considered legitimate and expected...[b]ut when women are leaders, they face resistance and are exposed to overt and subtle gender discrimination and harassment...When women in authority are assertive, dominant, powerful and confident, they're viewed as unfeminine...Men don't have this conflict; these are "masculine" traits.
This notion is supported by yet another recent study by a professor at Northeastern University who, using data from, found that students tended to perceive their female professors as "bossy," "fiesty," and "abrasive," but were more likely to call their male professors "geniuses" and describe them as "knowledgeable."

These studies provide further evidence that our notions of what constitutes "femininity" and "masculinity" must change, and that our culture must stop objectifying and harassing women. Until we dismantle gendered stereotypes, women achieving career success will be forced to carve their own space in a man's world, will be criticized for appropriating "masculine" characteristics, and will experience psychological distress as a result. How very unfortunate that even for the women privileged enough to achieve positions of authority, gender inequality continues to punish them once they get to the top by adversely impacting their mental health (to say nothing of lower-income women, whose experiences of psychological distress likely far outstrip those of their upper-class counterparts). For more on how gender stereotypes harm women in positions of power, read this blog post.


Jessica S. said...

I am frustrated with how women are said to be "prone to" depression. Your post brings up some good points that even those working in mental health should take note of. I think society does overlook the toll that the gender dichotomy takes, and simply lumps many women together in the "depression disorder" category and lazily says it's due to biology. However, it is not sorted out or explained adequately. Furthermore, many women are judged harshly when they bring up the issues affecting them. It's all such a shame that this is an underground discussion everywhere.

Sophie said...

This post was really eye opening. In general, I think mental illness is not discussed enough or appropriately for the most part. Mental illness has affected several women in my family and I've never made the connection that sexism is possibly contributing (at least in part) to some of these issues. I can definitely understand how sexism may contribute to women's higher likelihood of suffering from mental illnesses. However, I do believe that biology also affects individuals suffering (at least in part). I would be interested in reading more about how biology and sexism play roles in affecting women and how they are connected to both each other and mental illness.

Damon Alimouri said...

Subjugation causes all kinds of neurosis. Its pressures cause anxiety and depression that I do not believe commercial science is willing to recognize for the simple fact that recognition would not be lucrative.

Its interesting to note how subordination can manifest itself in all kinds of subtle ways which lead to OCD, anxiety, and depression. For instance, I've noticed that women, as an unconscious expression of subordination, tend to sit in chairs in very upright and "proper" ways. They take up as little space as possible. The metaphor is obvious. On the other hand, men tend to sit in ways that take up more space, an expression of dominance.

Rebecca F. said...

This post was very interesting, but it really made me think about another aspect of this problem. I do not doubt that women's exposure to harassment and discrimination results in women being more likely to experience depression or anxiety, but I wonder how much the gendered difference turns on the way mental illness is diagnosed.

I wonder whether women are actually suffering from a mental illness at these rates or whether their doctors (because of social stereotypes and misconceptions about women's ability) are simply diagnosing more women with mental illness. Anecdotally, I know a number of women whose doctors have discredited their symptoms and physical conditions favoring a diagnosis of mental illness (even when physical illness or injury is later confirmed).

This disbelief seems to be another example of the harmful discrimination that women face and perhaps, according to the studies you describe, it contributes to women experiencing increased levels of depression and anxiety, making a kind of feedback loop that works to maintain that statistical difference.

Sara said...

Through my own experiences, and those I've heard about from female friends, I agree that constantly having to be in state of hyper-vigilance can take an emotional toll on women. Women cannot walk down the street by themselves without having inappropriate comments made about them or said to them, as if they are just an object to be commented on. Sadly, it is unsurprising to me that women face increased levels of mental illness in such a patriarchal society where this type of behavior is commonplace.

Heather said...

I concur with Rebecca's comment. I would guess that a woman who expresses emotions like stress and anxiety to a doctor is much for likely to be diagnosed with depression than a man expressing those same feelings. Not only that, women tend to be more emotional than men. Yes, a gross generalization, but true in my experience. Women tend to have a high E.Q. and they are effected by the bad things that happen to their families, friends, and colleagues. Because of our misogynist culture, this type of behavior is disfavored and women who express such emotions are diagnosed depressed. That said, I tend to agree with your comments about the psychological toll sexism has on women. Having to constantly fight harder to get the same thing as men, coupled with the double shift, would certainly explain why more women are depressed than men. It is sometimes depressing to be a woman in this world!