Comparing Sexes in Mental Health: Everything You Need To Know About the Gender Gap

Mental health isn’t necessarily the same for men as it is for women, nor should it be treated as such. When it comes to mental health, research shows that women face a unique set of issues. While counseling can be an effective approach, women and professionals alike should take the time to understand the various types of concerns and barriers that females face throughout life. This awareness can help support women in leading the best life possible.

While both men and women are susceptible to mental illness, major differences exist between the two sexes. Women have greater chances of developing specific disorders. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), women are more likely to experience anxiety disorders, panic disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and major depression.

Women may also develop illnesses  unique to their sex, such as premenstrual dysphoric disorder, perimenopause-related depression, female orgasmic disorder, or female sexual interest/arousal disorder.

Hormones and Mental Health

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affects up to 30-80% of women in menstruating, reproductive age. PMS symptoms can include depression, anger, irritability, fatigue, bloating, and breast tenderness or swelling. Some women experience such intense premenstrual mood swings that it impacts their daily functioning and even their psychological well-being. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) was added to the DSM-5 in response to these cluster of symptoms: marked anxiety, irritability, depressed mood, sudden sadness, disturbance in appetite, severe muscle aches or pain, severe fatigue or tiredness, and poor concentration.

Today, infertility issues affect up to 10-15% of couples of reproductive age. Women struggling with infertility can experience a host of difficult reactions including anger, depression, anxiety, marital distress, social isolation, and withdrawal.

For those who do become pregnant, the experience is not always completely joyful and carefree. Many pregnant women struggle with negative side effects including moodiness, restlessness, feelings of sadness, fatigue, overeating or undereating, memory problems, guilt, social withdrawal, suicidal thoughts, and body aches. Up to 20% of women suffer from mood or anxiety disorders during their pregnancy. Even after giving birth, up to 85% of women experience feeling “baby blues” or some general mood disturbance. 1 in 10 mothers will suffer from postpartum depression.

Women experiencing menopause may endure physical stressors including hot flashes, chills, insomnia, memory problems, sexual dysfunction, intense mood swings and negative thoughts. Menopause may also coincide with stressful environmental factors such as aging parents, children leaving home, or serious illnesses of loved ones.

Trauma, Violence, and Domestic Abuse

Sexual trauma affects both sexes, but 1 in 6 women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes.

Intimate partner violence can be physical, emotional, sexual and/or financial abuse. For many women, it can be challenging to even know if abuse is happening. A woman may feel like she caused the abuse or provoked the mistreatment. And because abuse can repeat through intergenerational transmission, she may perceive the experience as normal.

The Gender Gap in Mental Health

According to the World Health Organization, women are significantly more likely to suffer from depression than men. Depression remains the most common women’s health problem, accounting for 41.9% of all mental health concerns among women. Men are more likely, however, to be diagnosed with antisocial problems and substance abuse disorders.

The American Psychological Association postulates that women tend to internalize emotions, which coincide with withdrawal, loneliness, and depression. Men may typically externalize emotions, which often correlate with aggression and impulsion. Doctors diagnose depression more often in women than men even with similar, standardized assessment scores. Women also receive more prescriptions for psychotropic medication, seek out help, and disclose mental health problems to physicians more than men.

Focusing on Women-Specific Issues

Taking care of one’s mental health is just as important as physical. However, the stigma, judgment, and lack of resources can prevent women from receiving quality assistance.

While all individuals enter counseling with unique issues, personalities, and backgrounds, women have some commonalities in the struggles they face. Specific woman-related issues may include dating and relationship troubles, childbirth fears and issues, fertility, parenting issues and management, identity struggles and sexual abuse.

Therapist Cecelia Hope Manley, a clinician who works with mostly females, identifies several key issues that women face:

Lack of assertiveness

Struggles with identity and values

Fear of abandonment and rejection

Lack of healthy boundaries in relationships

Strong need for approval from others

Accepting abuse and mistreatment

Avoiding confrontation

Negative body image 

Lack of self-care

Fortunately, today, more and more professionals realize the importance of sex-specific issues. Many addiction treatment centers recognize the unique needs of women, offering sex-specific tracks. This focus on a woman’s specific needs ideally helps them to feel more comfortable in reporting their mental health symptoms and concerns. Licensed professional counselors are required to pursue a master’s in counseling program, compiled with coursework specific to recognizing and treating different mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. These counselors and other mental health professionals will utilize compassion, warmth, and empathy to foster open relationships. They also practice caution to avoid stereotyping and generalizing women issues due to their biological sex.

Although some mental illnesses are specific and more prevalent in women, recognition and treatment have developed from the days of hysteria where a woman’s behavior was constantly under scrutiny. We are put into a unique position to strongly advocate for our health and must consistently assert the gravity of sex-specific differences in mental health.

Her Agenda

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