Gendering mental health

Experts discuss sexual difference at the First Scientific Day of the Chair on Sex, Gender, and Mental Health

Mental health has long been a multilateral field of study, but up until about 15 years ago, subjects used in both human and animal studies were predominantly male; it was merely assumed that results were applicable to the female brain as well. This, however, is beginning to change.

March 27 marked the First Scientific Day of the Chair on Sex, Gender and Mental Health at Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital in Montreal. The event, which aims to become an annual symposium, was devoted to a discussion of gender differentials in mental health.

Dr. Meir Steiner, a professor of psychiatry & behavioural neurosciences and obstetrics & gynaecology at McMaster University, delivered a lecture about female-specific mood disorders on Friday.

“It’s not news that men and women are different,” Steiner said in an interview, “[but in] the last ten to 15 years there has been a huge push to have representation from both sexes and genders [in research].”

The Scientific Day of the Chair on Sex, Gender and Mental Health provided professionals and researchers from different backgrounds in mental health a chance to come together to discuss and compare the influences of gender differences and similarities.

Dr. Aline Drapeau, an epidemiologist and researcher at the Fernand-Seguin Research Centre of Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital, presented research focused on social influences on gender difference in the use of mental health services, while Dr. Adrianna Mendrek, another speaker, presented on brain imaging in schizophrenic men and women in a lecture entitled, “Schizophrenia: Trapped in the brain of the wrong sex?”

Drapeau believes it is important to examine mental health in accordance with sex and gender, because men and women tend to express stressors in different ways.

“Women are more likely to perceive [mental illness] as a source of potential danger, whereas men view it as a loss of status. Behaviour towards the illness and services are different because the social and cultural expectations that we have for women and men are different,” said Drapeau in an interview with The Daily, “If you don’t take gender into account when performing a study and apply the findings to the whole population, [the findings] won’t relate to everyone.”

According to Drapeau’s recent study, the Influence of Social Anchorage on the Gender Difference in the Use of Mental Health Services, the cultural norms associated with gender play a huge role in a person’s decision to seek help for mental illness. Taboos surrounding mental health issues have developed largely over the past century as mental health has become an established part of the medical mainstream. The stigma surrounding mental illness is much greater for men than it is for women, which is why men are less likely to seek help.

“[Mental illness] is frightening,” Drapeau said. “When someone has a mental health problem, it is very disturbing personally…. Admitting you have a mental problem is admitting that you are now outside of the ‘norm.’ It is also frightening because the services are not readily available, [so] a person with mental illness feels like nothing.”

The move toward examining mental health in terms of sex and gender follows the push to make mental health services more readily accessible and acceptable in society. Using gender as a variable in this research provides researchers with more accurate findings and doctors with the ability to treat a patient as an individual.