Women face unique mental health challenges, including more diagnoses of depression, longer hospitalizations, and higher rates of abuse. However, women also bring particular resources to their mental health experiences, including advantages in detecting and accepting a mental health problem. In my book, Acceptance of Mental Illness: Promoting Recovery Among Culturally Diverse Groups, I define acceptance as actively recognizing and managing the symptoms of a mental health problem. In previous posts, I described key tips and common challenges in the acceptance process. In this post, I will draw from the research in my book to identify the strengths that women often bring to the process of accepting a mental health problem.
1. Stigma awareness. Women with mental health problems face double stigma - both the stigma of having a mental health problem as well as the effects of misogyny and sexism. Women often face particular challenges that are magnified by the presence of a mental health problem. These effects can range from an increased risk of violence to the gender pay gap. However, women’s mistreatment at individual and systemic levels can lead to a heightened awareness of how oppression operates. As a result, women may be more likely to understand mental illness stigma, and deflect this barrier to acceptance. Why accept a mental health problem when there may be so much stigma attached? Women’s understanding of how stigma operates can help us to recognize and resist stigma – a key obstacle to accepting a mental health problem.
2. Emotional expression. In my research, I have found that women with mental health problems feel they are advantaged in being socialized to detect and express their emotions. One woman put this to words: “Sometimes I think it’s easier for women ... than men because at least we’re used to being told we can cry and we can be emotional.” As women, we are allowed to feel our feelings, which can help to work through them and notice if there is a problem with our emotional experience.
3. Accessing services. Women are more active users of mental health services than men, and not necessarily due to need. Women are taught that it is acceptable to reach out for help when they need it, attend medical appointments, and form relationships with providers for ongoing care. This proclivity for accessing services helps women to engage in the self-care required to acknowledge and accept their mental health problem, aided by the help of professionals.
4. Social support. Women are also oriented around relationships, encouraging them to seek out and sustain relationships with peers and providers. In my research, women have spoken to the value of their relationships with friends, family members, and partners in helping their recovery and management of mental health problems, as well as adding meaning to their lives. This prevents some of the isolation that can come from having a mental health problem – someone by your side so you don’t have to face mental health challenges on your own.
5. Helping role. Women have been often culturally designated as nurturers and helpers to others, whether in their families or professions. Hence, women with mental health problems often describe their roles as mothers or supporters in their families as key sources of meaning. Many women with mental health problems become traditional providers, peer specialists, activists, and advocates for others with mental health problems. The opportunity to transform suffering into the service of others surely reflects an acceptance of a mental health problem, and allows women to support the acceptance process of others.
I want to mention a few caveats in closing this discussion of women’s strengths in the acceptance process. When we talk about gender differences in mental health, it is important to focus on the effects of gender socialization rather than essentialist notions of gender. Essentialism constructs gender as a fixed category holding universal characteristics, and attributes gender differences solely to biology or evolution. Eschewing essentialism also means not assuming all women are the same. There are major within-group differences among a category as broad as gender. Women’s mental health experiences can differ dramatically across race-ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender nonconformity, ability, and history. Ultimately, we can acknowledge the effects of gender socialization on women and affirm the strengths and resources we have developed in navigating mental health challenges and the acceptance process.
Wondering about men’s experience in accepting a mental health problem? Stay tuned, as I’ll be discussing my research on men in my next post.
Mizock, L., & Russinova, Z. (2016). Acceptance of mental illness: Promoting recovery among culturally diverse groups. Oxford University Press.