herald

Sunday 19 August 2018

responsibility

The 'have it all' generation of women is gambling with their mental health, at least according to a study published by the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology. The comprehensive study of 30 European countries examined the spectrum of mental disorders, but it was reduced to a single soundbite when it was released to the media: Women are twice as likely as men to be depressed. You only have to look at the world of celebrity to see some of the casualties . . . stars such as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Winona Ryder have tackled the black dog of depression.

Zeta Jones went public with her battle with depression in April when she revealed that she had sought treatment for manic depression after struggling to cope with the stress of husband Michael Douglas's battle with throat cancer. Ryder has gone on the record about battling depression after she split with Johnny Depp.

Professor Hans Ulrich Wittchen, one of the lead authors from Dresden University of Technology in Germany, acknowledged that men and women were equally prone to mental health problems (the study included depression, bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, insomnia, addiction and schizophrenia) but certain disorders affected one sex more than another.

"Marriage appears to reduce the risk of depression in males, for females it increases the risk," he concluded.

"In females, you see these incredibly high rates of depressive episodes at times when they have their babies, where they raise children, where they have to cope with the double responsibility of job and family."

The depressing subtext is that women are still taking the lion's share of household and child-rearing responsibility in an era when the vast majority of women are as concerned about breadwinning as their partners.

Lisa O'Hara of Relationships Ireland agrees. "Women may have been brought up to conform to a more traditional role and this conflicts with their modern role which may be to be head housekeeper, nurturer and provider.

"It can be overwhelming and their mood can spiral downwards as a result. Women can also feel depressed in relationships when they are unhappy with the power balance that exists between her and her partner -- if she feels she is doing most or all of the giving in the relationship, it can lead to depression."

Dublin-based psychotherapist David Kavanagh is of a similar opinion. "I think that women are under enormous pressure today to fulfill the fantasy of being the perfect mother/wife/ employee/trend setter/sexy 'babe' and so forth.

"The way that the media and society in general criticise women who stay at home to look after their children, labelling them as 'lazy' or 'selfish', does huge damage to women's self-esteem.

"Not only that but the constant pressure to look a certain way, dress a certain way, remain young, slim and fit (sexy) makes life very difficult for the average woman."

Indeed, women, more so than men, are subjected to impossible body ideals courtesy of ludicrous airbrushing in magazines and a beauty industry that tells us we must start worrying about ageing in our early 20s.

Our reproductive events are also unique. We have to contend with the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, infertility and menopause. Not to mention the hormonal mood swings that these events bring on (exacerbated in some cases if a woman takes the contraceptive pill) and the tick-tock of the biological clock in the background.

Child-bearing also affects our place on the career ladder, as Kavanagh reminds us. "Men still have more social opportunities or networks within which to bond and gain support, but if women stay at home and mind children they can often find that they are redundant to the workforce, five years later, when their children go to school and they try to reenter the jobs race . . . technology may have moved on, life may have moved on and consequently she may well feel useless and inadequate."

When you examine the challenges of being a woman, it's very easy to conclude that it is a man's world and that's why women are "twice as likely to be depressed".

I prefer to think that we are made of stronger stuff.

We have a tendency to take scientific studies as gospel. So long as we see a foreign-sounding professor's name and a university -- be it so in some far-flung land -- we'll readily accept that their findings are undeniable.



disparity

The most significant finding in this study has nothing to do with gender disparity. The headlines should have been given over to the disturbing finding that more than a third of people suffer from a mental disorder.

More to the point, while this is a study of mental disorders, remember that it wasn't carried out by clipboard-carrying researchers who traversed the streets asking people how happy they were on a scale of one to 10. To wit, it is based on medical records; it is a study of the patients who sought medical attention from doctors.

Countless other studies indicate that women are more likely to seek medical attention. Anecdotally speaking, we all know men who refuse to visit the doctor. More to the point, men are less inclined to discuss their emotional health once they get there.



drink

"It may seem that women are more likely to suffer from depression but is that because they are more likely to ask for help than men," asks O'Hara.

"Men, because of their conditioning can bury or deny such feelings but tend to act out their low mood esuch as excessive drinking."

It should also be added that men are more likely than women to suffer from alcoholism. Indeed, many men self-medicate with alcohol -- when was the last time you saw a woman enjoying a post-work pint in the pub, with nothing but a crossword puzzle to keep her company?

What really doesn't add up about this study is that men are still more likely to commit suicide. If depression leads to suicide then it would suggest that men are still stifling their emotions and not seeking help when they become depressed.

A glance at the headline "women twice as likely to suffer from depression" would suggest that women are the weaker sex. On the contrary, it shows that we are much, much stronger. It takes bravery to admit weakness and seek help.

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