Note: Medisys supported by TELUS Health respects and welcomes all genders to its clinics across Canada. This article examines the impact of male and female gender roles on mental health based on existing and available research, is still needed on the correlation between mental health and other genders.
You may be surprised to learn that the prevalence of mental illness is almost identical among men and women – yet there are striking differences in the ways that men and women experience mental health issues.
Numerous studies have shown that gender is actually a significant determinant of mental health, starting in childhood. The World Health Organization (WHO) summarizes the relationship between gender and mental health from childhood to adulthood like this:
- In childhood: most studies report a higher prevalence of conduct disorders (such as aggressive and antisocial behaviours), among boys than girls.
- In adolescence: girls have a much higher prevalence of depression and eating disorders, and engage more in suicidal ideation and suicide attempts than boys. Boys experience more problems with anger, engage in high-risk behaviours and actually commit suicide more frequently than girls.
- In adulthood: the prevalence of depression and anxiety is much higher in women, but substance use disorders and antisocial behaviours are higher in men.
Let’s take a closer look at the role that gender plays in some common mental health issues, and why.
Depression & anxiety
Depression is the most common mental health issue among women. It is twice as common in women than in men, and it’s one of the leading causes of global disability burden today. Interestingly, depression may also be more persistent in women than men, but more research is needed on this distinction.
Women are also twice as likely to experience anxiety as men, but women are more likely to internalize their emotions, which often results in isolation and depression. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to externalize anxious emotions, often resulting in aggressive, impulsive or coercive behaviours.
Gender-based roles, lifestyle stressors, difficult life events and biological factors may put women at greater risk of developing depression and anxiety than men.
For example, most primary caregivers are women — caring for their own children, others’ children, a partner, parents, or someone with a chronic health problem or disability. In fact, 75% of those who care for someone with a mental health problem are women.
Women also often juggle multiple roles including household work, parenting and paid work, which is another factor that may contribute to stress and overwhelm in more women than men.
To use a timely example, women have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of mental health impact: women are more likely than men to report worse mental health since the pandemic began in Canada (25.5% compared to 21.2%), and 30.5% of Canadian women say their lives have become “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressful during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to 24.0% of men.
Unfortunately, women are much more likely than men to live in poverty, and therefore have less access to community and healthcare resources than men do from a global perspective.
Of course, hormonal changes that are unique to women including premenstrual, pregnancy, postpartum, perimenopausal and menopausal changes can also significantly affect mood and contribute to depression and/or anxiety on their own, or when combined with other factors.
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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Women are, unfortunately, more likely than any other group to experience violent conflicts, civil wars, disasters and displacement: about 80% of the 50 million people worldwide exposed to such life circumstances are women and children. It is not surprising, then, that women are the largest single group of people affected by PTSD.
In addition to the horrible circumstances outlined above, more women than men have concerns about their personal safety, gender-based violence and sexual abuse. Women may also be more reluctant to disclose a history of victimization than men, which makes the illness harder to treat.
The lifetime prevalence rate for alcohol dependence is more than twice as high in men than in women: approximately 1 in 5 men compared to 1 in 12 women develop alcohol dependence during their lives. It is important to note, however, that men are also more likely than women to tell their health care providers about problems with alcohol use, so prevalence statistics may be skewed as a result.
One study found that when men and women consume similar amounts of alcohol, men experience a greater release of dopamine — a hormone responsible for pleasurable feelings — than women. But gender stereotypes about the proneness of men to alcoholism may also play a role in the prevalence of the disease.
Unsurprisingly, gender bias also plays a role in the treatment of mental illness. For example, doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in and prescribe mood-altering drugs for women than men, even when they present identical symptoms. This reality further underscores the grave need for access to mental health support at work, at home and in our communities.
If you’re feeling increasingly sad, anxious or hopeless, contact your healthcare provider or log on to Akira by TELUS Health to start a virtual consultation with a clinician. No matter your gender or the nature of your mental health concern, our healthcare providers are trained to provide immediate mental health support. We’re here for you, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.