More than 1 in 5 adults in the United States live with a mental illness. And nearly half of all Americans will have symptoms of a mental illness at some point in life.
Mental health issues certainly affect women and men differently. While women are more susceptible to conditions such as anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders, there are also a host of mental health conditions that exclusively impact women, including perinatal, postnatal and perimenopause depression.
It’s estimated that 29 million American women – about 23% of the female population – have experienced a diagnosable mental health-related disorder in the last year alone.
Why is Mental Health Important for Women?
Good mental health is important for everyone – and it’s equally as important as our physical health, as they are both deeply interconnected. Certain mental health conditions increase the risk for many physical health problems, including diabetes, strokes and heart disease.
There are biological and cultural differences between men and women that affect how women respond to mental health issues, as well as their likelihood to develop one.
Female hormonal fluctuations certainly impact mood and depression. Estrogen plays a positive role in preventing or addressing symptoms of schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, serotonin – the “happy hormone” – is typically produced less easily and synthesized more slowly by women versus men, which may account for higher rates of depression in women.
And culturally speaking, women have a tendency to take on more nurturing roles, and may feel selfish prioritizing their mental health. Despite shifts in recent decades when it comes to socio-economic status and influence, many women are still the primary caregivers for children and chronically ill elders, which can contribute to stress, depression and other mental health disorders.
What Mental Health Issues do Women Deal With?
Common mental health issues women may deal with include:
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)
MDD is more prevalent in women versus men for a number of reasons, one being the differences between the sexes in the triggers for depression. Women are more likely to internalize symptoms, which can exacerbate them. Hormonal changes also contribute to increased risk for depression, particularly those occurring during puberty, prior to menstruation, following pregnancy, and at perimenopause.
Between puberty and the age of 50, women are nearly twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder as men. Common anxiety disorders include extreme fear or worry, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, panic attacks, agoraphobia, and social anxiety disorder.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD in their lifetime. PTSD is triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Prolonged symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
Women and girls are much more likely to struggle with an eating disorder than men and boys, due to environmental, societal and behavioral differences between the sexes. Eating disorders include anorexia (extremely restrictive eating), bulimia (eating and purging), and binge eating.
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
PMDD is similar to premenstrual syndrome (PMS) but with more serious symptoms, including severe irritability, depression or anxiety in the week leading up to the start of a period.
Depression following childbirth affects 1 in 7 women in the United States. Sufferers may experience a loss of appetite, insomnia, increased irritability, and feelings of hopelessness.
The risk of depression in women increases as they transition to menopause, due to declining levels of estrogen.
How Can Women Improve Their Mental Health?
Mental health is a highly individualized experience. What works for one woman won’t necessarily work for another. Having said that, below are our favorite methods for improving mental health:
Speak with a mental health professional
If mental health issues are affecting your overall quality of life and that of others around you, don’t be afraid to speak with a professional. It is not a sign of weakness. In fact, there’s nothing more powerful than taking control of your health and wellbeing!
Get some sunshine
Exposure to the sun is critical to boosting our levels of Vitamin D and serotonin, which help to elevate our mood. Even just 10-15 minutes can go a long way!
Move your body
We may be biased, but exercise is one of the best things you can do to boost your mood. In addition to releasing feel-good endorphins, a good workout can also take your mind off any worries, increase your confidence, and provide much-needed social interaction.
Our thoughts can easily be taken over by what we see and hear on our electronic devices. Taking a break from your smartphone, tablet, laptop and television can bring a halt to that constant flow, and bring us back into real-world connections.
As important as our mental health is to our own quality of life, it’s also important to those around us. It affects how we care for our families, show up in the workplace, and relate to our friends and others. As women, we have a tendency to take on nurturer or caretaker roles in all spaces. It can feel selfish to prioritize our mental health – and feel scary to talk about. But our mental health is simply too important to ignore!