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Why Is Depression More Common in Women?

Depression is twice as common in women, for a number of reasons.

In recent decades depression has become increasingly common in industralized countries such as the US and the UK, and is often referred to by physicians as 'the common cold of psychiatry'.

Figures for the lifetime prevalence of depression vary according to the criteria used to define depression. Using DSM-IV's criteria for 'major depressive disorder' which are similar to the ICD-10 criteria for 'moderate depression', the lifetime prevalence of depression is about 15 percent and the point prevalence about 5 percent. This means that an average person has about a 15 percent chance of developing depression in the course of his or her lifetime, and about a 5 percent chance of suffering from it at this very point in time.

However, these mask a very uneven gender distribution as depression is about twice as common in women than in men. The reasons for this uneven gender distribution are not entirely clear, but are thought to be partly biological, partly psychological, and partly sociocultural.

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Biological explanations

Compared to men, women may have a stronger genetic predisposition to developing depression. And women are much more subjected to fluctuating hormone levels. This is especially the case around the time of childbirth and at the menopause, both of which are associated with an increased risk of developing depression.

Psychological explanations

Women are more ruminative than men, that is, they tend to think about things more—which, though a very good thing, may also predispose them to developing depression. In contrast, men are more likely to react to difficult times with stoicicism, anger, or alcohol or drug misuse. Also, women are generally more invested in relationships than men. Relationship problems are likely to affect them more, which makes them more likely to develop depression. 

Sociocultural explanations

Women come under more stress than men. Not only do they have to go work just like men, but they may also be expected to bear the brunt of maintaining a home, bringing up children, caring for older relatives, and putting up with all the sexism! They also live longer than men. Extreme old age is often associated with beareavement, loneliness, isolation, poor physical health, and precarity—and so with depression. Finally, women are more likely to seek out a diagnosis of depression. They are more likely to consult a physician and more likely to discuss their feelings with the physician. Conversely, physicians (whether male or female) may be more likely to make a diagnosis of depression in a woman.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook 

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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