Today is World Mental Health Day, so where better to kick off Hysterical Women than with a focus on mad women in the attic?
Statistically, women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem, and almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Depression too is twice as common in women, and may also be more persistent in women than men. 29% of women have been treated for a mental health problem, compared to 17% of men – although, clearly there are factors at play there other than prevalence.
Culturally though, women with mental illness are greeted by a mix of fascination and revulsion – think of Jane Eyre‘s Bertha Mason, the women of Girl, Interrupted, and the media demonisation of Britney Spears during that infamous breakdown.
Despite huge strides in mental health awareness over recent years, women struggling with their mental health – from depression and anxiety, to lesser known conditions like bipolar, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia – still too often face dismissal and disbelief, or fear, mockery and stigma.
A quick flick through some of my past work on mental health reveals some interesting recurring terms: ‘attention-seeking’, ‘drama queen’, ‘hormonal’, ‘over-reactive’.
When women do externalise trauma, especially in settings that are not trauma or gender-informed, they are often misdiagnosed, or labelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘attention-seeking.’
Katharine Sacks-Jones – from my Femedic article on women with PTSD.
“With sectioning, it’s so disempowering that you’re terrified of alienating the staff, so you just shut up, you don’t ask, you don’t say anything,” she explains.
On a separate occasion, while being cared for on a mixed gender ward, Andrea was sexually assaulted by another patient, and says staff accused her of lying and “being a drama queen” when she reported the incident.
Andrea – from my NetDoctor article on what it’s like to be sectioned.
I often hear things like manipulative, attention seeking – those are the worst – and then there’s over-reactive, drama queen, and so on.
Imi Lo – from my Telegraph article on Borderline Personality Disorder.
Whatever the problems – and there are plenty – with the way we talk about men’s mental health, it’s hard to imagine these kind of terms being applied to them. There’s an underlying implication in all of these that’s so often specific to women: we’re not to be trusted.
As campaigns like Women in Mind from charity Agenda point out, a significant factor in women’s mental ill health stems from the fact we’re more likely to experience violence and abuse.
Indeed, women – and particularly young women – are the highest risk group for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), despite common misconceptions that only veterans are affected. The prevalence of violence against women plays no small part in those figures. And, if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that there’s still a very long way to go for women to be taken seriously as survivors!
Women suffering with with common mental health conditions, like moderate forms of depression or anxiety, are too often greeted with the suspicion that they’re exaggerating, over-reacting, or that it’s just their ‘time of the month’ (and more on that particular gem when we talk about PMS and PMDD!)
Meanwhile, women suffering with more severe mental illnesses continue to face stigma and suspicion, particularly around the way they typically internalise their emotions – such as through self-harm, or eating disorders. Again, we see labels like ‘silly, attention seeking girls’, ‘drama queens’, ‘manipulative’, ‘cries for help’ (and isn’t that one particularly telling?) and ‘just a teenage phase’.
In the current climate, even once they have been taken seriously, women – like men – then face devastating waiting lists for mental health treatment and support. The ability to talk more openly about mental health is one thing, but it’s meaningless without anything more tangible to back it up.
Women may typically be better than men at speaking out about their emotional health in the first place – but are they actually being heard and believed when they do?
Check back later when I’ll be sharing two World Mental Health Day guest posts, from women sharing their own experiences of the sexism and dismissal they faced when seeking help with their mental health…