There has been much media interest in the findings of Prof Daniel Freeman, that there are significant gender differences when it comes to mental health. (The Guardian, 22nd May 2013)
He reports that women are 40% more likely to develop mental health conditions, particularly in their most common form of anxiety and depression. Women are in fact 60% more likely to have suffered from the former, and 75% more likely to have experienced the latter than men. Figures from the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) bear this out with 64% of patients completing treatment being women, and only 34% being men. (I know that doesn’t add up to 100%, there are other gender options). I also, in my private psychotherapy practice see many more women (70%) than men (30%), as I suspect, do my colleagues.
On this basis of this evidence Freeman suggests that women are ‘The Stressed Sex' (which handily, also happens to be the title of his new book).
When faced with reports of this nature, it is always helpful to ask the question, are women more susceptible or just better at getting help? As Freeman points out, men are two and a half times more likely to report substance abuse than women, suggesting that they have a less constructive way of coping with stress. However the IAPT figures are pretty hard to argue with, and it is interesting that the majority of patients completing treatment in both genders were in the 18-64 age range (i.e. working age). It is a shame that this is not broken down further because I would hazard a guess that it is the 25 – 45 range (i.e. child rearing age) that has the greatest number of patients. For all that there are house husbands and fathers on flexi time, in the vast majority of cases it is likely to be woman who, if she is working, carries the additional responsibility of knowing which child has to be where, and at what time. It is women who coordinate homework, buy school shoes and (my own particular bête noire) decorate jars for the school fete; even in partnerships without children, to what extent are men now really equal partners in terms of domestic drudgery?
So, women ultimately have responsibility and more to fit into the day, but I also think that however hard bitten or successful we are, we are also the ones that care and nurture. Ultimately women are conditioned to be the people that make things ok – as we saw with the recent atrocity in Woolwich, it was women that shielded the body and a woman who tried to reason with one of the attackers. As much as we take this role in jobs, life and relationships, the more the other(s) around us don’t have to, which traps us in the dynamic of always having to take that role. A woman may feel like taking the edge of with a bottle or two of wine, but who is going to get the ironing done if she does?
So what else? Well, I write a lot about how body image issues are rife among women, debilitating so for some, less so for others and I do think this adds to the stress levels inherent in being a woman. However, body issues are increasingly becoming an issue for men as well and the extreme end of the spectrum where dissatisfaction becomes Body Dysmorphic Disorder, there is much less gender division than that cited by Prof Freeman. So whilst I think they might add to the mix, body issues don’t explain the gender divide for me.
And let’s face it , I'm hypothesizing on possible reasons based on my own experience of working with both men and women; I guess I need to buy the book to hear Prof Feeman’s views, but ultimately I think it probably comes down to responsibility. Women aren't inherently sicker, rather we do more, care more and are better at looking after ourselves (usually because we know people depend on us). We are in fact an example to men, and should not be pathologised as a result.