Whenever we talk about the human race, we invariably divide it into two convenient categories or strata – male and female. When the issue of mental health of men and women is being discussed, the data and its analysis points to some complex yet interesting inferences.
Before we begin talking about these inferences, it is important to point out something beforehand.
Roughly until the 18th century, many people believed that only women could suffer from mental illnesses. It was believed that a woman’s weak and feeble-minded and lacks the capacity to reason or apply logic. It didn’t help that mental illnesses were considered to be weaknesses. Hence, the narrative always became, “Those who are mentally ill are weak. Since only women can have mental illnesses, they are weaker. The cases of men having severe mental illnesses were mere exceptions.”
This has generally been the traditional view on mental illness and gender. Hence, it is important to mention, time and again, that having a mental illness is not a sign of weakness. Furthermore if people from a particular gender are more prone to mental illnesses, it doesn’t necessarily make them inferior or weak.
Most people like statistics. They are mainly numerical – hence, they are considered objective. They are easy to understand and explain. It is within the very nature of humans to collect information and convert it into numerical data to arrive at a meaning they can grasp.
This meaning gives stats the ability to highlight the differences between the various strata. The amusing thing about this set of data is that across all age groups, over a diverse range of illnesses, there is little to no difference in the prevalence of mental illnesses between the two genders.
When we get into the nitty-gritties though, the numbers tell a wholly different tale. Some of them are listed below:
1. The onset of mental illnesses in the case of men is earlier than it is for women.
2. Mental illnesses in men manifest mostly with anti-social behavior, whereas in women, it is reported with deviant ideation.
During adolescence, girls engage more in suicidal ideation and suicide attempts than boys, who are more prone to engage in high-risk behaviors and commit suicide more frequently.
That last line sends shivers down my spine at times.
Why is it that men commit suicide more often than women? Why is it that women ‘feel’ but men ‘do’?
I think that whenever we talk about the gender difference and mental health, we need to have a look beyond these scientific readings in the journals. We need to look at ourselves as a society. We are a society that tries to fight gender differences while propagating them at the same time. There are so many instances when we ignore the feelings of a person, just because they belong to a particular gender. There are other times when we downplay the problems of women by calling them ‘emotional’ or ‘sensitive’ – as if these words are insults. The saddest part is that this bias and prejudice isn’t limited to only uneducated people – it also runs through the doctors treating them.
According to a WHO report, “Doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women compared with men, even when they have similar scores on standardized measures of depression or present with identical symptoms. […] Gender stereotypes regarding proneness to emotional problems in women and alcohol problems in men, appear to reinforce social stigma and constrain help seeking along stereotypical lines. They are a barrier to the accurate identification and treatment of psychological disorder.”
I would say that a lot of the differences which have been recorded so far have been due to the extraneous effects of social stigma, prejudice and confirmation bias. There are differences in how men and women with mental illnesses present themselves, but that is also determined largely by the environment they grow up in.
To change the situation, we need to have better-trained professionals. We need a more empathetic and patient society – one that won’t turn a blind eye to a crying man or ignore the cries for help from a woman. I agree that right now, it is not feasible to have gender-neutral approaches – but at the same time, it is also important that a two-pronged approach is followed religiously and with complete conviction. Only then can we start moving towards a more equal society.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.