Gross: Females and Mental Illness

Though we may think that mental health issues are technically universal, we have a social and cultural association between mental health and women.

Now more than ever, it’s okay to admit when you are feeling down, depressed, antisocial or sluggish, if only to your spouse or doctor. Social acceptance of mental health issues has increased dramatically in the last century. Illnesses are now mostly met with modern science and counseling, rather than incarceration or torture. However, that is not to say that issues aren’t still prevalent in mental health treatment and diagnosis. The stigma remains, and shame or unease keeps many from sharing their problems with anyone, even in the most intimate environment.

In earlier eras, mentality about these issues was very much slanted against women. A woman could be thrown in a ward or hospital that more closely resembled a prison for something as simple as post-pregnancy stresses and anxieties. Mental or hormonal issues of women were treated with cruelty or indifference, rather than legitimate treatment.

In recent times, the tables have turned. Women are still the focal point of the mental health issues in society’s eyes but it is men who suffer as a result. Though we may think that mental health issues are technically universal, we have a social and cultural association between mental health and women.

Think back to the last commercial you saw for an antidepressant on television. More likely than not, the featured persons were female, depicted sitting on the edge of their beds with their head in their hands, or sadly watching other people lead more enjoyable lives. Additionally, print advertisement for mental health medication is much more prevalent in women’s magazines than in men’s. Since advertising for prescription medications became legal in the United States, women have been the target audience. An article by the Huffington Post displays a variety of antidepressants and other such advertisements that have targeted women from the 1960s to today.

As a result, help for this issue is much more accessible to women than it was in past eras. However, we still, unfortunately, think of various mental disorders as an exclusively female problem. It may be true that statistically women have higher rates of depression and anxiety, (World Health Organization finds that 41.9 percent of women’s mental disabilities are depressive, compared to men’s 29.3 percent) but even these absolute, factual numbers could be questioned.

Because of the association between women and mental illness, women are more likely than their male counterparts to make their problems and struggles known. It could be conjectured that higher rates of mental illness in women are a direct result of a higher reluctance in men to report their illnesses 

Yet another problem with this stigma is that it has led to distinct stereotypes of the mentally ill. An article published by the Association for Psychological Science contains a study that judged people’s reactions to “stereotypically” afflicted people. When patients fell into the expected categories (depression for women and alcoholism and violence for men) the surveyed reactors felt disgust rather than sympathy. When a patients diagnosis was out of the “norm,” volunteer reactors were more willing to view their mental illnesses as “genuine biological disorders, rather than character defects or matters of personal irresponsibility.”

So what does all of this mean? Simplified, two things: women are still stereotyped as the mentally ill, which trivializes and disregards their problems and men are an oft-ignored group whose mental illnesses are not widely acknowledged. The prevalence of anxiety and depressive disorders among women makes it hard for us as a society to sympathize with each individual case. Likewise, our gender expectations for men as strong, resilient figures make us reluctant to allow men to struggle with mental health disorders. Our culture has been resistant to making mental health issues public, but as more and more people are diagnosed, the stigmatization of these problems needs to vanish 

Sure, we are better off than when we burned schizophrenics at the stake, but there are still improvements that must be made. Bringing mental illness to the attention of the public, whether it’s concerning men or women, is that next step. For many, treatment will not be procured until we do.

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(1) comment

Harold Maio

The stigma remains

One can say with absolute surety it exists in your mind, and in your paper.

distinct stereotypes of the mentally ill

You employ one, “the” mentally ill.

I did find the premise of your article interesting, I have never noted the emphasis on female in pharmaceutical ads. I will now look

Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor

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