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Mandy Rutter


Senior clinical manager

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Mental health in women – greater incidence or more likely to report problems?


“Mental health is inextricably linked to our status in society.”

New figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre suggest that women – and especially those under 50 – are the group at the greatest risk of suffering from mental health problems. But is this a case of greater reporting of problems by women, or a reality that needs to be accounted for in HR thinking and systems?

It is generally agreed that gender affects the power and control that we have in society. Most of the low-paid, insecure and casual roles in our workforce are held by women, most of the chief execs, senior managers and decision-makers in our workplaces are men. Evidence shows that mental health is significantly influenced by our sense of personal autonomy, self-worth, physical, sexual and psychological safety, essentially how much power and control we feel we have in our environment and our relationships.

Those with less power and less control over their lives will suffer from more mental ill-health that those with power and control (“mental health is inextricably linked to our status in society. It benefits from equality, and suffers from discrimination”, according to the World Health Organisation).

Statistics around gender and mental health are more concrete and help to explain gender differences:

  • women are more likely to be treated for a mental health illness than men  (29% compared to 17%);
  • twice as many women than men are diagnosed with anxiety each year (Of all people with phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorders, 60% are female);
  • twice as many women than men are diagnosed with depression each year;
  • if men and women present the same depressive symptoms to their GP, women are still twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression. Men are more likely to be diagnosed with one aspect of depression, i.e., sleep disorders, migraine, muscle-pain;
  • men are more likely to go to their GP with alcohol related disorders (67% of people who drink alcohol to a ‘hazardous level’ are men, and 80% of those dependent on alcohol are men);
  • men are the heaviest users of cannabis and other illegal drugs (75% of cannabis users are men and 69% of those addicted to illegal drugs are men);
  • three times as many men commit suicide, than women, but women are far more likely than men to make suicide attempts;
  • women are more likely to seek help form their GP, men are more likely to use inpatient facilities;
  • women are twice as likely to suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, than men. However, rape and sexual violence are one of the most difficult traumatic evens to recover from, and 1 in 5 women are likely to be subjected to sexual violence sometime in their lives;
  • 90% of people who experience anorexia nervosa are women;
  • there are certain times during women’s lifecycle when they are at risk of mental illness, for example after childbirth and during the menopause.

There are no marked gender differences in the rates of severe mental disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that affect less than 2% of the population. However, in schizophrenia, men appear to have a more severe form of the illness, characterised by an early age of onset and poor outcomes in terms of recovery while in women the onset is later and recovery is more likely.

There have been many explanations for these gender differences, including physiological, sociological, and biochemical differences between men and women. The most recent explanation has come from Professor Daniel Freeman of the University of Oxford in 2013, who believed that the increase in some mental illnesses in women is due to pressure on women to fill many different roles: employee, parent, carer, and at the same time being bombarded by images of the “perfect” woman. Hence the common feelings of failure, and never being able to achieve the socially acceptable required results.

Whatever the specific reasoning, this information provides the workplace with important evidence for planning and targeting mental health services appropriately. For example it maybe useful to focus on alcohol, when discussing mental health issues with men. Alternatively it maybe useful to advertise services for women around symptoms of depression and anxiety. Proactive work to build positive mental health and resilience however, must begin with recognising the specific areas where workers feel powerful and in- control, and building on those.

8% of all the calls Validium received to its Employee Assistance Programme between January and September last year were from people who said they were feeling depressed. The vast majority of these fell into one of two categories. Firstly, the employees who were depressed because of failures relating to their relationships. When their partnerships are struggling or their relationships with children or other family members are not going well it can leave them feeling insecure and fragile. Counselling can help them to feel more empowered, understand their role in the situation and help them create a proactive strategy for change, an EAP can give them the upfront support they need to stay positive and take action to manage their feelings of depression.

Then there are the employees who are struggling with their work-life balance. Even though they might be reasonably content with their jobs, they feel that other areas of their life are suffering because of the high targets and resulting stress levels at work. It’s important here to concentrate on solutions – reviewing what people have control over and improve their sense of autonomy to help them become better at prioritising, and also make healthier choices about their down-time. Even when depression is linked to historical problems or on-going issues, there is consistent feedback that supporting staff specifically around the current ‘trigger’ for problems improves their sense of wellbeing. Taking things one step at a time works.

Author Profile Picture
Mandy Rutter

Senior clinical manager

Read more from Mandy Rutter

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