More Women at Risk for Poor Mental Health

In the past decade, women have seen gains in almost every area of life. The wage gap is slowly closing, mortality rates from breast cancer and other diseases have declined, and now that two women have announced their candidacy for the 2016 election, soon we might even see a female president.

Yet, there is one area in which women are decidedly worse off than they were a decade ago.

A new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that women today are more likely to experience poor mental health than they were in 2004. The findings, which are part of the IWPR’s 2015 Status of Women in the States, also show that women report on average one more day of poor mental health per month than men do.

IWPR study director Jeff Hayes attributes some of this decline to socioeconomic causes. Whereas 2004 was a good year for the U.S. economy, many today are still recovering from the 2008 crisis, which resulted in high unemployment.

“You can look at the days that people are reporting poor mental health, and they are connected to people’s real life circumstances, too,” Hayes said. “They are much higher for the unemployed and much higher for the low-income groups, and that suggests that these economic insecurities, real-life struggles really do weigh on people.”

These stresses can weigh especially on women, who often take on most of the burden of child care and household responsibilities, Hayes says.

“Women are still responsible for most of the caregiving, as well as more of them are working,” he said. “I would think those multiple roles would be more draining.”

Native American, Hispanic and black women report even more poor mental health days, a statistic Hayes attributes to higher incidences of unemployment and low wages among women of color.

The lack of institutions such as universal day care and universal paid sick days only exacerbates the issue, Hayes said.

“When the kid gets sick, it’s more likely to be, when surveys ask who stays home if someone’s got to, it’s more likely to be the woman whose job has to give away,” Hayes said. “If you don’t have paid sick days and you get in that situation, you’re risking losing that job, or at least that day’s pay.”

IWPR’s findings are consistent with existing research on gender differences in mental health, said Anne Devereux-Mills, the chief strategy officer at Lantern, a San Francisco-based company focused on making mental health and wellness programs widely available through mobile technology.

“Emerging research shows some basis for higher vulnerability to anxiety, depression and stress for women,” Devereux-Mills said.

Clinically, women are more frequently diagnosed with depression than men are. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are 70 percent more likely than men to experience depression during their lifetime. Additionally, the IWPR’s report cites women as more prone than men to other mental health conditions including anxiety and eating disorders.

However, Devereux-Mills said the role of social factors cannot be underestimated, as social factors can often affect the psychological causes at the root of disorders such as depression and anxiety. One example she points to is the difference in how men and women have been conditioned to react to events in their lives.

“Men are more likely than women to attribute success to an internal quality — e.g., I got a raise because I deserve it — vs. women who are more likely to attribute success to external factors — e.g., I got lucky,” Devereux-Mills said.

While women themselves can seek mental health resources from companies such as Lantern, organizations can also help relieve stress by helping employees establish better work-life balance, particularly in relation to child care.

“Between multiple roles and multiple stresses accumulating unequally, it makes a lot of sense that women have worse mental health,” Hayes said. “The way we have set up our economy, families are left on their own … as labor markets continue to improve, I’m hoping things will get better.”