Depression and Gender Inequity

Why do women suffer depression more frequently than men?

Posted Mar 27, 2018

Statistics show that women are about twice as likely as men to suffer from depression over the course of their lifetime. That’s a pretty stark difference when you consider how hard and how long modern women have been fighting for equality in this world.

There are numerous stereotypes that suggest that women are the “weaker” sex, whatever that might mean. Medical research, though, shows that the health of newborn girls is more robust than that of their male counterparts. However, it seems that the playing field shifts to favor men early on. Female newborns are more likely to be victims of infanticide in some cultures. Young girls are also more likely than males to be the victims of child sexual abuse in many cultures, including the US.

Girls may start out stronger, but they end up fighting harder for their place in the world from early on. Depending on the family and its culture, many girls grow up believing that women should remain silent and accept the treatment they are given. In fact, the rates of depression are actually a bit higher for males; it is once puberty begins that the rates of depression in adolescent girls far outstrips the rate for teenaged boys. In addition, early maturing girls have an increased risk for depression, but early developing boys do not experience the same risk. In our culture, young girls are sexualized and objectified at earlier ages through such vehicles as fashion and the media. Boys are “allowed” to be boys and engage in “boyish boorish” behaviors throughout their lives, whereas females are put under the gaze of men early in their teens. Women must learn to reject stereotypes, ignore harassment, and tolerate inequity in the workplace and, for many, in their homes.

Depression Manifests Differently between Genders

This tacitly encouraged suffering in silence is probably one of the reasons that women tend to internalize their depressive mood states, whereas men are more likely to externalize their feelings of depression. While men tend towards substance abuse, impulse control, and antisocial behaviors as their experiencing of depression, women’s discomfort manifests in depressive symptomology, anxiety, eating disorders, and somatoform (body-focused) symptoms. Women are more likely to report pain, too, as a symptom of depression.

While many would argue that women feel silenced by society and in multiple arenas, the internalization of feelings of depression promotes a sense of isolation and avoidance. Low energy levels, fatigue, increased appetite, and hypersomnia could all be likened to escape mechanisms. Men suffering from depression are likely to act out or strike back at others whereas women tend to turn their pain in on themselves.

While the significant differences in hormones between men and women are responsible, in part, for some differences in depression rates, they do not account for the lifelong diagnosis divergence. In addition, men respond to psychosocial stressors through physiological pathways – high blood pressure, aggression, and so on. Women, however tend to see themselves as at fault rather than directing their anger outwards.

Research has shown that men have an increased stress reaction when they experience challenges to their achievement levels or status. Women, however, experience the greatest stress reactions when facing social rejection and conflict. This speaks to the highly connected nature of a healthy woman’s social web. Not only are young women more empathetic, prosocial, warm ad agreeable than their male age mates, they also care more deeply about being liked. They also tend to ruminate over their perceived shortcomings or their perceptions of others feelings about them. If your mother warned you about the uselessness of worrying about what others thought, she was only half right. It appears, unfortunately, that worrying about what other people think is actually potentially harmful – rumination alone or with friends actually tends to magnify the problem and can lead to a sense of helplessness in dealing with the issues. These feelings, in turn, can morph into depression. Women who care are also women who may suffer.

Women in the World

While there may be individual tendencies towards depression that exist and exposure to physical violence, sexual abuse, and trauma all are contributors, the world, itself, plays a role in the depression rates for women. In states in which gender equality is lower, the incidence of depression is higher. Living in a world in which the odds are consistently stacked against you can lead to increased levels of hopelessness, helplessness, and depression. In other studies, it was found that the wage gap accounts for gender disparities in mood and anxiety disorders. While employment for women is a positive factor, in general, it was revealed that women who also have children actually lose the protective factor of having a partner and a job.

Summary

The world is a challenging place for women regardless of “how far we’ve come.” Depression is a serious disorder and one that is debilitating and disrupting of routine living activities. While there are indeed prescription cures and findings about the positive benefits of physical exercise on symptoms, simply being a female in our country today should not be a risk factor for this illness.

In summary, there is no “easy solution” or clear path to decreasing the rate of depression today, as the world stands now. Helping ensure that each of us feels valued, protecting every female from harassment, abuse, and discrimination, and building a culture of inclusivity, rather than exclusion, are macro-level steps that require continued effort. Small steps for now, for men, include telling the women in your life of their value to you and your achievements. For women, it means refusing to believe that you are less than or “deserve” inequitable treatment by anyone, anywhere.

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