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The Unique Challenges of Women’s Behavioral Health

Women’s behavioral health is a growing field of research, with implications for healthcare and treatment options for women struggling with their mental health, substance use, or other behavioral disorders.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), women are twice as likely to struggle with depression as men. Moreover, a woman’s experience of depression might be quite different from a man’s. More research is still needed, but there is some indication that depression may be more persistent in women than men. “Women also tend to experience more physical symptoms in the context of mental illness than men” – for example, “headaches, stomachaches, chronic pain, and high blood pressure…” (Clearview Women’s Center).

Although science has not yet given an answer to the question of why women suffer from depression at a higher rate, it is clear that it is not pure biology. Unequal power/status, overloaded schedules balancing work and family life, and a greater likelihood of being physically or sexually abused in their lifetimes are all factors that can disproportionately increase women’s risk of depression.

Writing specifically about teenage girls in the 2000s, but applicable here to the societal expectations of women in general – Dr. Stephen Hinshaw discusses in his book The Triple Bind a triad of pressures that set conflicting expectations for women and put them at greater risk for behavioral health disorders:

  1. Meet the traditional ideal of an obedient, nurturing wife;
  2. Stand shoulder to shoulder with men in traditionally male-dominated arenas such as athletics and high-power careers; and
  3. Present a veneer of sexualized femininity.

A woman attempting to balance all three of these goals – because she is judged based on them – is subjected to stresses not expected of men. In turn, this stress makes women more susceptible to depression, disordered eating, and other behavioral health conditions.

There are many theories as to why women experience some behavioral disorders differently, but for some it is a direct relationship between women’s life experiences and their mental health. One in five women is a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime – WHO notes that this high prevalence of sexual violence corresponds with a high rate of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among women, making them the largest group affected by this disorder.

When it comes to substance use, not only are women less likely to get treatment, they “are more likely than men to have chronic pain, to be prescribed prescription pain relievers, to be given higher doses, and to use them for longer time periods.” All of these factors put women at greater risk of substance use disorder. Moreover, psychological and emotional distress are considered risk factors for opioid misuse for women but not among men.

Times of hormonal change can also place women at greater risk of developing symptoms of mental illness. Because of the hormone fluctuations that are a normal part of women’s lives, there are some disorders unique to women, including postpartum and perinatal mental health disorders.

All those struggling with their behavioral health cannot be placed in the same box – certainly not all men and women. It’s important to remember that not only are different demographic groups affected by mental illnesses at disproportionate rates, but each group’s experience of a given mental illness may not be the same as another’s.