Feminism & Mental Health, Part 1: The Gender Disparity

By: Laura Kacere, MA, LPC

Did you know that women are nearly twice as likely to be affected by depression and anxiety disorders as men? Women who are unemployed, less educated, and have less access to wealth are at even higher risk, as are women of Color and immigrant women. Post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects approximately 7.7 million adults in the U.S., is also more likely to occur in women than men. Why are women more likely to be affected by these largely diagnosed disorders of depression, anxiety, and PTSD? What’s the relationship of gender and mental health? And what role can feminism play in all of this?

It is common to try to understand mental health through the framework of the medical model, the way we tend to view physical ailments, viewing mental health concerns as disorders of the individual, and therefore treating them as such. Psychologists like Alfred Adler have identified the significance of viewing “the individual in context,” noting not just the impact our social and cultural environment has in shaping us, but on the role our connection to community can play in our development and in healing.

Limiting our understanding of disorders to the individual “out of context” disregards the larger systemic and cultural factors that play a role in such a disparity in mental health. Perhaps it can be seen most clearly when it comes to PTSD, for example. According to the National Center for PTSD, women are more than twice as likely to experience PTSD in part because sexual assault is the most common traumatic incident leading to traumatic stress, and women make up 90% of adult victims of sexual assault, with about 1 in 3 women experiencing a sexual assault. These numbers reflect a serious cultural and societal problem around gender and power.

The issue of sexual violence has become a more frequent topic of discussion in media recently, as women are increasingly feeling empowered to speak out about their traumatic experiences. There seems to be a bit more safety at the moment in a culture that otherwise lends itself to victim-blame (though there is certainly still a lot of this happening); we’re seeing that when women speak out in large numbers, a culture of support can be created, which often means survivors are less likely to carry the burden alone, and less likely to blame themselves for the violence they’ve experienced. Receiving social support – from family, friends, and the wider community – is a significant protective mechanism in preventing the development of PTSD. Our cultural response to women about their traumatic experiences can play a huge role in how they view what happened to them, and how they heal.

As with PTSD, we cannot view depression and anxiety as separate from the sexist oppression that women experience in our country, and worldwide. Women’s economic disadvantage, connected to such issues as inequality in wages and the lack of accessible reproductive healthcare, lends itself to higher rates of stress, and fewer resources to manage mental health challenges.

The Gender Disparity

There is much research still needed on the adverse psychosocial experiences of women, but research does show that 3 important protective factors against depression include autonomy/ability to exercise some control in response to events, access to material resources that allow for that autonomy, and social support. When we simply look at the feminization of poverty in the U.S., as well as limitations in bodily autonomy that stem from limited access to reproductive care and the large prevalence of gender-based violence, we can see how these protections do not exist for many women. Along with the violence (or threat of violence) of devastating policies and interpersonal harm that affect our mental health, it is also the daily microaggressions and “benevolent sexism” that can lead to chronic stress, as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression.

According to the World Health Organization, “Depression, anxiety, somatic symptoms and high rates of comorbidity are significantly related to interconnected and co-occurrent risk factors such as gender based roles, stressors and negative life experiences and events. Gender specific risk factors for common mental disorders that disproportionately affect women include gender based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, low income and income inequality, low or subordinate social status and rank and unremitting responsibility for the care of others." And as one might guess, racism similarly increases adverse mental health reactions, including increased anxiety, depression, and stress.

In short, sexism, like all forms of oppression, is bad for your mental health. So how does feminism fit in with all of this?

Feminism can be understood broadly as the advocacy for women’s political, social, and economic equality. I want to clarify here, that when I speak about women, I am including transgender women, who face painfully high (and rising) rates of both systemic and interpersonal violence and discrimination. The kind of feminism that I believe in will lead us in the direction of progress and support for our mental health centralizes the needs of transgender women, as well as those of women of Color. This is an anti-oppressive or intersectional feminism that challenges a historical legacy of White feminism and understands the fight for gender equality must include fighting the overlapping systems of racism, heterosexism, wealth inequality, and other forms of oppression.

Experiences of trauma on a systemic level, such as poverty and incarceration, and interpersonal/individual, such as sexual abuse and intimate partner violence, as well as the less overtly traumatic yet insidious harm of compulsory gender roles and objectification of women’s bodies are all rooted in these systems of oppression. Feminist therapists have helped radically shift our understanding of these kinds of distress as fundamentally connected to social context, arguing that how we think about healing from trauma and other mental health concerns can be rooted in feminist awareness, and that feminist identification and activism can be healing for trauma survivors, as well as for those struggling with depression and anxiety. But how does feminism actually help us recover and heal?

Check back next month for Part 2 of this piece: Feminism & Mental Health: Prevention and Healing