Pregnancy, Trauma & Stigma – Why Mental Health Issues Are More Common Among Women

By Liz Greene

Though mental health disorders can affect anyone of any gender, race, or age, research suggests that women are about 40 percent more likely than men to be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their life. While there’s certainly a margin of error to point out — as it’s been shown that women are more likely than men to seek diagnosis and treatment — there is also a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors at play that put women at a higher risk for developing mental illness.

Despite having concrete evidence on why mental illness is more common among women, psychiatrists have pointed to a number of possibilities to explain the disparity. One physical difference that may play a part is that women generally have lower serotonin levels than men and our bodies process the chemical at slower rates. Serotonin deficiency is associated with a number of mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety.

But physiological differences aren’t the only piece of this peculiar puzzle. There’s far more to it than that.

Pregnancy, Parenting, and Caregiving

The changes a woman’s body undergoes during pregnancy and childbirth can’t be emphasized enough. Thanks to a combination of hormonal fluctuation and emotional turmoil, 20 percent of women who give birth each year suffer from postpartum depression. The challenges commonly faced by women during and after birth — such as unsupportive partners, traumatic births, poverty, and high levels of stress — directly contribute to postpartum mental health issues.

Culturally speaking, women are often forced into the role of primary caregiver to children and the elderly. Often, women working outside the home are still expected to manage household responsibilities at the end of the day, such as preparing meals, cleaning, and so on. Many women also deal with the struggles of single parenthood, such as working multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. The continued stress of these overwhelming responsibilities can lead to mental health issues if not alleviated.

Sexualization and Trauma

It’s no secret that women’s bodies are society’s chosen object of sexualization. Magazines, movies, television shows, music, advertisements, and peer relationships — nowhere is sacred or safe. This constant (and most often negative) sexualization regularly leads to problems with the healthy development of self-esteem and self-image among girls and women. This not only engenders an unhealthy self-image, it also brings about feelings of shame and gives fuel to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

As if relentless sexualization wasn’t enough, women also have to contend with violence and sexual abuse. Trauma is horrifically common among women — half of all women experience some form of trauma during their lives.

  • One in six women is a victim of rape or attempted rape.
  • 82 percent of juvenile rape victims are female.
  • 90 percent of adult rape victims are female.
  • One in three women have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
  • One in seven women have been stalked by an intimate partner during their lifetime to the point in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.
  • Women and girls account for 71 percent of all human trafficking victims detected globally.

Trauma is a major risk factor for a multitude of mental illnesses, most notably post-traumatic stress disorder. Consequently, discrimination and violence work directly to undermine women’s mental health. Many women receive inadequate or insensitive care after undergoing sexual or domestic trauma, furthering the development of mental illness. Victim blaming, slut shaming, street harassment, violence on television, and similar cultural issues only work to magnify their pain after a traumatic event. Without proper treatment for both the trauma, and any consequential mental illnesses, these women may be at higher risk for suicide.

Differences in Diagnosis

It’s something I’ve written about before, and as of last week, experienced now three times in my life. Doctors are more likely to diagnose women with mental illness than men. Implicit bias leads many doctors to label a woman’s symptoms (including acute and chronic pain) as emotional in nature, while taking men’s symptoms far more seriously. For example, a woman presenting with chronic pain is diagnosed as depressed, whereas a man is referred to a pain specialist.

This isn’t deliberate on the part of the doctors, it’s entirely subconscious. We still live in a world rife with gender discrimination, where the idea that women are more emotional and less rational still figures prominently. Sometimes, even the most educated among us fall victim to these implicit biases.

Fight the Stigma

Whatever the reason for the prevalence of mental illness among women, we as a society owe it to ourselves to dismantle the stigma surrounding mental health disorders. One rather surprising way doctors can do this is through medical imaging. Barry Southers, Professor at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash, explains, “An MRI scan … can effectively document potent physical changes that occur when a patient suffers from a particular mental illness, efficiently portraying that mental illness is, in fact, concrete and directly related to changes that occur within the body.”

On a personal level, we can fight stigma by talking openly about mental health, educating ourselves and others, showing empathy and compassion for those living with mental illness, and advocating for mental health reform. Though this may seem like small potatoes when compared to the bigger picture, it really does make a difference — if not to millions, at least to one person. And if you save just one life, it’s all worth it.

If you or someone you know has had thoughts of self harm or suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK, text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741, or seek help from a professional.





Liz Greene is a makeup enthusiast, rabid feminist, and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.

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