Women’s mental health challenges
The Robesonian - 4/3/2018
Since 1987, March has been celebrated as Women’s History Month in the United States. This year, Gov. Cooper also issued a proclamation recognizing Women’s History Month. The proclamation recognizes that women make up more than 51 percent of the population in North Carolina. While it was a time to recognize the special achievements of women throughout history, it was also a time to recognize the burdens that women and girls shoulder, and to note that these burdens may leave women and girls more vulnerable to the stress that leads to mental health disorders.
Good mental health is more than not having a mental illness. The courage, integrity, tenacity, and inspiration found in the lives of women celebrated last month are also attributes that are associated with good mental health. Mental health is associated with having life skills to cope with challenges and stressors that everyone experiences. Gender can play a role in developing those life skills.
While girls and boys, men and women, are more alike than different, paying attention to gender and thinking about gender can have a positive impact on helping to support mental health. Women and girls may be different from others in their physiology, their cognitions, their emotional expressiveness, their social development, communication patterns, the roles that they fill and are expected to fill, and in the ways that they are socialized by others. These differences can affect mental health care in many ways: in prevention programming, treatment, and in recovery processes. While women and girls share experiences around their gender, they are also different from one another due to other identity factors like race, culture, age, religion, and ability. It is important for mental health care providers to be sensitive to this.
Women are 50 percent more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression and 60 percent more likely than men to be diagnosed with anxiety. Women are also more likely to have experienced trauma and to be victims of violence, including sexual violence. In fact, 15 to 25 percent of all women experience sexual trauma during their lifetime. This can make women vulnerable to the development of substance abuse disorders. Some studies have shown that substance abuse is three times greater among women who report histories of sexual violence. Women who have been victims of sexual violence are also more likely to exhibit symptoms of mental health disorders.
When counselors work with women who seek help and support for stress, relationship problems, depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems they are advised to help women understand how they experience their gender. Women often receive confusing messages in society from the media and pop culture, from friends and family, and in the workplace about their behavior. Counseling can be a place to explore roles, reflect on life choices, and practice new behaviors. The relationship that a woman has with her counselor or other mental health provider should help her to understand how to be connected to others in a positive way and also help her to understand her independence and autonomy.
Helping women to have good mental health does not need to wait until a woman experiences stress or trauma. Women and girls can learn early on to use the life skills that support mental health. These life skills can be taught and encouraged through getting girls to participate in group activities like Girl Scouts, church groups, 4-H, and team sports where they learn to rely on themselves and others to achieve goals. Parents can help teach girls how to handle stress and trust themselves by talking with them about positive coping skills, healthy eating, sexual decision making, and mindfulness, and praising them for more than being nice and pretty. Parents and teachers can teach girls how to use social media effectively and tune out unhelpful comparisons to others.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the US Department of Health and Human Services both emphasize that working with girls and women requires mental health care and substance abuse treatment providers to pay attention to addressing the unique needs of girls and women. Treatment providers are becoming better at understanding how to support everyone in developing wellness and acquiring coping skills to handle stress and manage symptoms associated with mental health disorders.
As we celebrate women in history this March, let’s also take action to help prepare the women of the future by emphasizing — as parents, teachers, health care workers, and policy makers — good mental health and the development of life skills in girls and women today.