It should come as no surprise that depression is the most common mental illness and leading cause of disability in the world. But it does not effect everyone equally. Consistent findings show that depression is a highly gendered problem; the prevalence of depression is 1.5 to 3 times greater in women than in men. Explanations as to why this discrepancy exists are often problematic, but new attitudes toward mental health show promise.
The most common explanation is predicated upon the biomedical model that currently dominates our understanding of psychiatric – and physiological – illness. These theories explain that the different hormones and neurochemicals distributed between the sexes make women more vulnerable to depression.
It is hard to deny the fact that depression itself has a chemical and biological basis. A better understanding of the way deficiencies or excesses of certain neurochemicals can affect behaviour has led to a widespread understanding of mental illness as something that people cannot control on their own.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that bodies are constantly affected by the social environment with which they interact. Repeated findings have shown that sociodemographic attributes – such as race, class, and gender – all play a strong role in shaping both our physical and mental health. A 2003 Statistics Canada study stated that living in poverty affects a person’s health more than smoking or lack of exercise. Being a person of colour, a woman, non-binary, an immigrant … Basically, anything other than a white heterosexual man of good socioeconomic standing, can negatively affect mental health.
It is thus important to examine exactly why being a woman increases the likelihood of becoming depressed. There needs to be a shift in the way women’s depression is viewed. Rather than relying on a supposed inherent predisposal to mental illness, depression in women needs to be understood as an interaction between the biological roots and the social structures in which women experience their lives.
Jane Ussher, a psychology professor at the University of Western Sydney, argues that there is greater emphasis on women living up to an idea of femininity, which emphasizes the role of a woman in taking care of others. In an attempt to fulfill these expectations, she believes that women may ignore their individual needs, leading to depression. Others have argued that the feeling of a lack of control is greater in the lives of women, as they are less likely to have high-position jobs, salaries, or other benefits that are often received through the privileges of being a man. Jill Chonody, professor of social work at the University of South Australia, argues that the differences of power in society greatly affect women’s experiences. These differences can be internalized, creating feelings of self-esteem or autonomy.
Feelings of helplessness, lack of control, and low self-esteem are often seen as predictors of depression. If these feelings are being created simply by occupying the role of womanhood, it would make sense that depression rates are higher.
In looking at a mental illness such as depression, it is necessary to discuss the structural and social conditions in which they exist in order to be able to gain a fuller understanding. This necessity applies to both women and men; examining ideas of masculinity and femininity can help us be aware of different manifestations of depression. While the biomedical model remains highly significant, it is important not to forget how we can also be affected by society’s structures.