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The month of March was Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8. These recognitions are important in honoring the significant cultural, economic and political achievements and contributions of women around the world. Unfortunately, women continue to face many battles when it comes to matters like equal wages, access to political positions or corporate leadership roles and general equal treatment across society. While these and many other issues have personal, social and economic impacts, they also have a direct impact on women’s mental health.
In addition to the systemic issues, American culture and media is full of stereotypes. Too often, these portrayals are not only unfair and inaccurate, but can further exacerbate the struggles many people face. Women are often depicted in inferior or entirely dependent positions. They are often presented as overtly sexualized and reliant strictly on physical attributes for material success.
Sometimes, particularly when it comes to characterizing mothers, women are glorified as having it all together and being able to manage every detail of life with no hint of a challenge or failure. These representations do little more than create unrealistic expectations that lead to unnecessary judgment and frustration.
Biological and social factors also have the potential to adversely affect women’s mental health. The World Health Organization estimates that about one-third of women are subjected to physical or sexual violence, which significantly increases the risk of mental health disorders. This figure does not account for women facing sexual harassment, which likely affects a dramatically higher percentage. Women also have the potential for challenges associated with hormonal changes and other issues during premenstrual, perinatal and perimenopausal times.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the percentage of women being treated for mental illness is almost 50 percent higher than men. In fact, women are around twice as likely as men to be affected by depression, generalized anxiety and panic disorders. Women are also twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder after a traumatic event and account for a large majority of eating disorders.
It is important to recognize that women might experience symptoms of these mental health issues differently than men, such as a higher likelihood of increased fatigue, changes in eating and sleeping habits, weight fluctuations, increased headaches and digestive problems. Other common symptoms include persistent sadness or hopelessness, irritability, excessive fear or worry, extreme mood swings or social withdrawal.
While media portrayals and social expectations of women have evolved and improved in line with a growing understanding of women’s health and gradually improving systemic environments, especially in more recent years, the reality is that society still has a long way to go in properly honoring and supporting women. Part of that effort must include recognizing and acknowledging these unique challenges faced by women, the intersections of systemic and personal issues and the role these factors play in women’s mental health.
In that light, it would be thoughtless and disrespectful to not acknowledge that this article was written by a male. While it is intended to help illuminate issues pertaining to women’s mental health, men’s roles must begin and continue with stepping back, listening and learning. And in the continued effort to further women’s rights and recognize the fundamental, essential, indispensable role of women in the fabric and functioning of our society, men and all individuals must come together to stand behind and in support of women everywhere — as individuals and as a collective. This includes respecting, encouraging and advocating for women’s mental health long beyond the month of March.
Bryan Busch is a licensed mental health counselor in Cedar Rapids. He also works at Folience, the parent company of The Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.