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March 24

Complexities of Women’s Mental Health

Women face a unique set of challenges that can take a toll on our mental health. From societal expectations to hormonal fluctuations, mental health for women is poorly supported in our society. America Ferrera delivers a speech in the Barbie movie that perfectly sums up how complicated life is for women. Her character, Gloria, states:

"Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we're always doing it wrong... You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It's too hard!" 

Understanding these complexities is the first step to making changes for women's mental and physical health. Social expectations, hormonal changes, violence, and barriers to care all contribute to women not always receiving the best mental health care. 

Social Expectations

Society often imposes unrealistic expectations on women. We are often supposed to effortlessly balance multiple roles such as caregiving, work, and personal life. This pressure to "do it all" can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and burnout. Whether it's the pressure to excel in the workplace while managing familial responsibilities or the expectation to maintain a perfect appearance perpetuated by media, these societal norms can significantly impact women's mental health. 

Even though I know that it is impossible to be all the things all the time, it's hard not to feel like a bad mom when my daughter gets upset because I need to send "one more email" but also like a bad professional when my son starts crying when I'm trying to have a virtual meeting with a colleague. For women, it is so important to acknowledge that we live in a society that makes it hard to ever feel confident in our roles as professionals or as parents. When we can accept that being 100% all the time in all of our roles is impossible, we can reduce some of the stress.   

Hormonal Changes

One of the defining features of women's health is the hormonal fluctuations we experience throughout our lives. From puberty to menopause, hormonal changes can have profound effects on mood, energy levels, and overall well-being. Pregnancy and the postpartum period bring about significant hormonal shifts, often accompanied by mood disorders such as postpartum depression and anxiety. Similarly, the transition to menopause can bring about mood disturbances and increased susceptibility to mental health conditions.

The more we understand these fluctuations, the more we can adjust our lives accordingly. Starting a big project in the middle of your period may not be the best idea. Waiting a few days might give you the energy and inspiration you need to be more effective.   

Violence

Women are disproportionately affected by various forms of violence, including domestic violence, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence. These traumatic experiences can have devastating consequences on women's mental health, leading to conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Societal stigma and victim-blaming attitudes can further increase the psychological distress experienced by survivors of violence, making it challenging for them to seek help and support. 

Small things like having to think through if going for a walk in the evening or getting into an Uber is safe, can be exhausting and lead to chronic stress. It's easy to ignore about how tiring thinking through these scenarios can be because it is the norm for women. Being aware of the effect of this chronic stress is a very important step to understanding where symptoms of anxiety and depression may be originating. 

Barriers to Care

Despite the growing awareness of mental health issues, women still encounter significant barriers to accessing appropriate care. Historically, healthcare studies have been biased toward male subjects, leading to a lack of understanding of women's unique mental health needs. Even sanitary products weren't tested with blood and not until recently, have studies actually looked into the accurate absorbancy of period products. 

Additionally, women are more likely to be dismissed by doctors when seeking treatment for mental health concerns, with their symptoms often attributed to hormonal fluctuations, and therefore considered not a big deal, or dismissed as "emotional" or "hysterical." This dismissal not only undermines women's experiences but also perpetuates gender disparities in mental healthcare. This article from Harvard gives a great summary of some of the research out there and how women tend to suffer longer before being properly diagnosed and treated.

Conclusion

Addressing the challenges of women's mental health requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses societal change, improved healthcare practices, and increased awareness and support for survivors of violence. By recognizing and understanding the unique challenges faced by women, women can find ways to be kinder to themselves (I know increasing awareness of my own stressors has helped me work on this) and we can all work towards creating a more inclusive and supportive environment that prioritizes women's mental well-being. 

Anne Rice, LPC, LMHC, CPCS

About the author

Anne is a licensed therapist in both New York and Georgia. She is the owner of Firefly Wellness Counseling located in the Atlanta area. Her team works with all members of the family struggling with anxiety, depression, and big life changes. Anne loves helping adults and teens navigate life's difficulties by creating a comfortable and safe place to share anything and everything that is on their minds. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology at Princeton University and her graduate degree in Counseling Psychology from Boston College.


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