Five Most Common Mental Health Issues in Women
For years, many women have hidden their mental health disorders from friends, coworkers and even family members for fear of discrimination, judgment and even prejudice. They were afraid of being seen as not only different, but also weak and inferior. Unfortunately, in many ways, this is still the case today. However, through education and an increase in available treatment options, women can face their mental illnesses and mental health challenges and make it easier to live normal lives.
According to the World Health Organization, only two in every five people experiencing an anxiety, substance use or mood disorder actually seeks assistance within the first year of the onset of symptoms. However, the symptoms are different between men and women with some signs being more prominent with females than males. Scientists are only now learning how to separate the psychosocial and biological factors that contribute to mental health disorders most common in women and men. Additionally, researchers are studying the delicate nature of treating serious mental health issues in women during pregnancy and in the postpartum period.
Women’s mental health issues fall into a variety of categories:
- Anxiety disorders: If you have an anxiety disorder, you typically respond to certain situations or objects with fear, as well as series of physical signs including rapid heartbeat and sweating. It is normally diagnosed when a person’s response to a situation is inappropriate or if you cannot control your reaction or response. It can also be diagnosed if the anxiety interferes with normal everyday functions.
- Mood disorders: Also known as affective disorders, these conditions involve periods or persistent feelings of being either overly happy or extremely sad or both.
- Psychotic disorders: These types of disorders involve altered thinking and distorted awareness. Common symptoms include hallucinations (experiencing voices or sounds that are not real) and delusions (false fixed beliefs that ill persons accept as real or true).
- Eating disorders: These types of disorders involve very extreme attitudes, behaviors and emotions surrounding food and weight.
- Personality disorders: Women with personality disorders have inflexible yet extreme personality traits that are not only distressing to the person they affect, but are also causing problems in social relationships, and at work or school. Your patterns of behavior and thinking are very different from societal norms and are very rigid to the point where they interfere with everyday living.
Factors Affecting Mental Health Disorders in Women
While mental health affects persons of all genders, races and ages, studies have shown that certain biological factors play an intricate role and are critical elements in the development of your mental illness. Females tend to have lower serotonin levels than males and process this chemical at a slower rate, too. This can contribute to a fluctuation in a woman’s mood.
But besides gender, sociocultural beliefs and influences also largely affect women. While some of these gender roles have shifted over time with females taking on high-level careers and males staying at home to raise the children, there is still a tremendous amount of stress placed on women, which in turn can lead to panic attacks and depression.
Other factors amplifying common psychological disorders in women include:
- Sexualization of women: Society has shown that for generations, women have been the object of sexualization in peer relationships, magazines, movies and television shows. These negative images can interfere with the healthy development of your self-image and self-esteem and can lead to anxiety, depression, shame and stress.
- Violence: While most cases of violence against women go unreported, it was noted that in 2013, 35 percent of women globally experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, although that figure is as high as 70 percent when looking at violence over a women’s lifetime.
- Sexual abuse: If you are a victim of sexual abuse, it is not uncommon to be afflicted with a diagnosis of multiple mental health issues including suicide attempts, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and eating and sleep disorders.
Common Mental Health Issues in Women
While symptoms of a mental health disorder are prevalent in both genders, as a woman, you will have more physical symptoms including headaches, nausea, fatigue, restlessness and loss of appetite.
What are the common mental health issues in women?
While it is normal to feel anxious at times, if you have GAD, this anxiety turns into an excessive and ongoing worry that interferes with your everyday activities. You always expect the worse and find you can’t stop thinking about money, family, work, school or your health. Many times, this worry is out of proportion and unrealistic, and interferes with work, relationships, school and social activities.
Symptoms: The symptoms of GAD are similar to the symptoms of panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other types of anxiety. They include feeling restless and edgy, muscle tension, headaches, nausea, difficulty concentrating and the need to go to the bathroom frequently. Symptoms may also include the following:
- Being easily startled
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
Causes: Some research suggests that genetics plays a part in likelihood of a woman developing GAD. This disorder has also been associated with brain chemistry and the abnormal functioning of some nerve cell pathways that relate to emotion and thinking. If the pathways do not run or connect efficiently, problems arise with mood and anxiety. It is also suggested that environmental factors such as trauma, abuse, divorce, death of a loved one or changing jobs/schools can lead to GAD. Using and withdrawing from alcohol, caffeine and nicotine can worsen the symptoms.
Treatments: If you have been diagnosed with GAD, there are two treatment options available. There are several types of short-term and long-term medications available that are helpful for those whose GAD interferes with day-to-day functions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is another option in which you learn to recognize and change the behaviors and thought patterns that lead to the anxious feelings. This type of therapy helps you look at worries more realistically.
This condition typically develops following a terrifying or traumatic event such as a physical or sexual assault, a natural disaster or the unexpected death of a loved one, specifically a parent, sibling, child or significant other. If you have PTSD, you may have frightening and lasting memories and thoughts which can cause you to be emotionally numb. PTSD was first brought to the forefront because of its relation to war veterans; however, there has been an increased number of women with PTSD who are victims of traumatic incidents not related to being a military veteran.
Symptoms: There are many symptoms of PTSD that are grouped into three categories. Re-experiencing symptoms include flashbacks (reliving trauma over and over again), bad dreams and frightening thoughts. Avoidance symptoms of PTSD include the following:
- Avoiding places or events that are reminders of the traumatic experience
- Feeling a strong depression or guilt
- Losing interest in enjoyable activities
- Having trouble remembering the event that triggered the disorder
Finally, hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD include feeling edgy or tense, being easily startled and having angry outbursts or trouble sleeping.
Causes: PTSD is brought on if you’ve been involved in a traumatic incident such as rape, mugging, torture, kidnapping, abuse, vehicle crash, bombing or natural disaster. Research is continually being conducted to determine even more in-depth causes of PTSD. Scientists are currently focusing on genes that play a role in creating fear memories. Understanding how they are created can help refine or even find new interventions for reducing the symptoms. Studying certain areas of the brain that deal with stress and fear is another way researchers are better understanding possible PTSD causes.
Treatments: Medication and psychotherapy are two of the main treatments for PTSD. Since everyone is different, treatment depends on what the traumatic event entails. Psychotherapy involves meeting with a mental health professional either one-on-on or in a group setting. Support from family and friends is also an important part of talk therapy. Common types of psychotherapy include the following:
- Exposure therapy
- Cognitive restructuring
- Stress inoculation training
Currently, there are a couple of types of medication used to treat PTSD. They are antidepressants that help controls the PTSD symptoms of sadness, anger, worry and feeling numb.
Not only are more women prone to depression than men, but the pattern of symptoms and causes range from reproductive hormones to social pressures. Depression is treatable and is a serious condition that impacts every part of your life including your social life, career, relationships and even your sense of self-worth. One in every eight women will develop depression during her lifetime.
Symptoms: Women tend to experience some symptoms of depression more than men, such as sleeping excessively, eating more, gaining weight and the feelings of guilt that are associated with them. Common signs and symptoms of depression include the following:
- Lack of energy and general fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Weight and appetite changes
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Suicidal thoughts
- Feelings of guilt
- Depressed mood
- Lack of pleasure or interest in enjoyable activities
Causes: There are three generalized causes of depression in women: Biological and hormonal, psychological, and social. Biological and hormonal causes of depression include premenstrual problems, pregnancy and infertility, postpartum depression, health problems such as chronic illness or disability, and perimenopause and menopause. Psychological causes include body image issues, overwhelming stress at home, work or school, and having the tendency to focus on and rehash negative feelings such as crying to relieve emotional tension and talking to friends about why you feel depressed.
Treatments: The main treatment options for women with depression are antidepressant therapy and psychotherapy. However, there are some special treatments you may want to consider depending on the cause of your depression. For instance, family therapy may help if your home life is adding to your symptoms. However, if you have been diagnosed with depression and are pregnant, your doctor will alter your course of treatment so it is safe for you and your unborn child. If you suffer from postpartum depression and it doesn’t go away within a few months of your baby’s birth, your healthcare professional can recommend a treatment that is safe for you and your child if you’re breastfeeding. Self-treatments for women with depression are also recommended including exercising, getting eight hours of sleep each night, practicing relaxation techniques, caring for a pet and exposing yourself to a little bit of sunlight each day.
There are several types of eating disorders that affect women, such as anorexia and bulimia, but binge eating disorder is the most common occurring in about 5 million women in the United States. This disorder is characterized by compulsive overeating where you consume large amounts of food while feeling helpless, out of control and unable to stop. If you are a binge eater, you normally overeat, and you use food to cope with the stress going on in your life as well as any other negative emotions you may have. However, instead of feeling better afterward, you feel worse. It is a vicious cycle, but with help and support, it can be treated.
Symptoms: There are behavioral and emotional symptoms of binge eating. Behaviorally, you cannot stop eating or be in control of what you are eating, rapidly eating huge amounts of food and even overeating when you are full. Binge eaters also tend to stockpile or hide food to eat later secretly, and when you are with others, you tend to eat normally, but will binge when you are alone. Emotional symptoms include the following:
- Feeling numb while you are bingeing
- Eating to relieve stress or tension
- Feeling as if you are never satisfied, no matter how much you eat
- Experiencing embarrassment over how much you eat
- Feeling desperate to control your eating habits and your weight
Causes: It normally takes a combination of things to develop a binge eating disorder, so the causes are threefold: Biological, social and cultural, and psychological. Biological abnormalities have been studied in which the part of the brain that controls appetite is not sending the correct messages about fullness and hunger. Society’s pressure for women to be thin can add shame to binge eaters and can even fuel their emotional eating. Finally, binge eating and depression are strongly linked. Bad feelings about self-esteem, body dissatisfaction and loneliness are also contributing factors.
Treatments: There are several types of treatments available for binge eaters including cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal and dialectical behavior therapies. Support groups are another positive form of treatment, as is group therapy. Finally, you can take medication to help control not necessarily your binge eating, but the underlying causes of the disorder.
Persons with this mood disorder suffer from extreme euphoria and energy known as mania, as well as hopelessness and sadness, commonly known as depression. It is also known as manic depression or manic-depressive disorder. A woman is more likely to have symptoms of depression instead of mania, as her female hormones and reproductive factors may influence this condition.
Some research suggests that bipolar disorder is associated with menopause in women who develop it later in life, and it can also be associated with premenstrual symptoms and pregnancy/postpartum in younger women with mood disorders.
Symptoms: Bipolar disorder symptoms are often similar to those found in persons with depression, but at times they are more extreme. They include the following:
- Uncharacteristic periods of aggression and anger
- Frequent sadness and tearfulness
- Needing very little sleep
- Impulsive behavior
Other potential symptoms include the feeling of being trapped, overeating, anxiety and excessive worrying.
Causes: While the exact cause of bipolar disorder is not quite known, scientists believe genetic, neurochemical and environmental factors may play a role in the onset and progression of this condition. It is a predominantly biological disorder as it occurs in a specific part of the brain and is caused by a malfunction of its neurotransmitters. Manic depression can lie dormant or be triggered by stressors in your life.
Treatments: The goal when treating bipolar disorder is to stabilize your mood to avoid the consequences of both the depressive and manic stages. Long-term treatment is typically the best option when treating bipolar symptoms. Medication is a common treatment even during a woman’s pregnancy. Women may also benefit from psychotherapy, regular exercise and stress management as treatments for this disorder as well. Some of the common types of treatment prescribed for those with manic depression are as follows:
- Mood stabilizing medication
- Atypical antipsychotics
- Self-help strategies
- A combination of medications that include antidepressants
You can receive acute treatments that focus on suppressing current symptoms until they are in remission, continuation treatment to prevent a return of the symptoms from a specific episode, and maintenance treatment that prevents a recurrence of the original symptoms. With appropriate treatment, the outlook for a person with bipolar disorder is favorable.
Overcoming the Stigma
Many misunderstandings still surround these illnesses, and more attention is needed in terms of diagnosing and treating them.
Millions of women suffer from mental health disorders, but less than half seek help, even though medication and other therapies can treat more than 80 percent of these conditions.
Besides the impact it has on society, families and the individuals involved, mental health disorders have large economic costs. Treatments are in the billions of dollars each year, and this does not include lost productivity costs. The stigma surrounding mental health disorders more common in women is strong, and such disorders are often considered a personal character flaw instead of a genuine and real illness. It’s important to start addressing the needs of women with these conditions, as well as to improve public education so those who need help will actually seek it.
If you or a loved has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder and are not sure where to turn, contact Voyage, part of the JourneyPure network of treatment centers. Besides working to treat mental health issues, Voyage also helps those with addictions and co-occurring disorders through holistic approaches and the goal of developing lasting life skills and true wellness. Our 12-step model is combined with treatments for mental health and helps women learn a way of life that is fulfilling, bountiful and effective.