Gender Discrimination Causes Depression
A new study reveals the impact on women's mental health.
Posted October 13, 2020
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a truly remarkable Supreme Court justice and strong voice for righting gender discrimination in key cases, recognized this phenomenon: “All I can say is I am sensitive to discrimination on any basis, as I have experienced that upset.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges that health outcomes for people who have been treated with inequity are unequal. In a recent study, the mental health impact of gender discrimination finds a higher rate of depression for women who recognize they are being discriminated against.
The Lancet Series on “gender equality, norms and health” highlighted the adverse effects of gender inequality on women. The definition of “discrimination” here refers to the unfair treatment received by those belonging to a subordinated social group that has been formed in the struggle to preserve power and privilege by the dominant group.
The introduction of The Lancet study states that, “Gender discrimination manifests in a variety of ways, such as gender-biased interpersonal behavior; unfair institutional policies; structural barriers to education and opportunities in professional, financial, and political realms; inequitable treatment within family, on the job, and in interactions with institutions; as well as micro-aggressions, sexual objectification, sexist language, and assumptions of intellectual and physical inferiority of women.”
In their cohort study addressing gender discrimination and depressive symptoms among childbearing women, the researchers discovered to their surprise that discrimination based on gender had not been examined before in a population-based sample. Their findings “provide the first evidence that perceived gender discrimination is associated with depressive symptoms among child-bearing women” (The Lancet, March 2020). The study argues that perceived gender discrimination, as a stressor is more harmful for the victim because it’s outside their control and it is connected to a less valued and unchangeable social identity.
The Gender Gap in Depression
WHO states that the overall rates of psychiatric disorder are almost identical for men and women but dramatic gender differences are found in the patterns of mental illness. According to The Lancet study among others, depression is twice as likely to be experienced by women than men. Although mood changes and depressed feelings occur with hormonal changes, that alone does not cause depression. Personal life circumstances and experiences have been identified with a higher rate of depression for women occurring at any age (Mayo Clinic).
Many factors that impact women to a greater extent than men have been identified as increasing the risk of depression in women. These conditions include unequal power and status, psychological stress, sexual violence, and domestic violence.
WHO identified a lifetime prevalence of violence against women and reports at least one in five women have suffered rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Severe life events contribute to a sense of loss, feeling inferior, humiliated and entrapped—predictors of depression.
Women who are emotionally, physically or sexually abused as children or adults have a greater chance to experience depression at some point in their lives than those who weren’t abused (Mayo Clinic).
Addressing Cultural Based Mental Health Issues
For women who perceive gender discrimination and present with depression at the therapist's office, how likely is it that exploring her depression will lead back to the culture and feelings of discrimination if the therapist doesn’t embrace that culture has an impact on mental health?
“The ‘psychotherapist’ culture has been criticized for operating with a culture-blind approach that too often tries to separate “cultural” issues from “personal’ issues. We need to embrace culture, not erase it.” (M. Nickerson, LICSW, 10/3/2020 workshop).
I find myself, as I imagine other therapists do, falling short on including culture and social identity in clinical assessment and treatment planning. And, what about including social inequities or micro-aggressions as discriminatory events as a regular part of trauma assessment and treatment? Do we look for other factors that can create social divisions and power imbalances with our treatment populations? (M. Nickerson, Cultural Considerations in Assessment).
Most treatment and trauma models fail to address or even highlight the cultural impact on mental health. The inequity of gender is one of many important discriminatory factors affecting groups of people who need us to be competent in this realm. We need to remember cultural context is important.
"Gender discrimination and depressive symptoms among child-bearing women:" ELSPAC-CZ cohort study. Research Paper, Published by The Lancet: March 04, 2020.
Mayo Clinic Report: "Depression in Women: Understanding the Gender Gap"
Nickerson, M. Workshop: "Addressing Culturally Based Trauma: Identifying and Treating Internalized Oppression." Sponsored by the New England Society for the Treatment of Trauma and Dissociation, October 3, 2020.
Nickerson, M.I. (editor/author) 2017. Cultural Competence and Healing Culturally Based Trauma with EMDR Therapy: Innovative Strategies and Protocols. New York: Springer Publishing Co.
World Health Organization. "Gender, equity and human rights, making a difference: vision, goals and strategy," https://www.who.int/gender-equity-rights/understanding/en/(accessed 02/21/20).