Women are about 75 per cent more likely than men to report having recently suffered from depression. Women are also about 60 per cent more likely to report an anxiety disorder. These sharp discrepancies observed by Oxford professor Daniel Freeman, were found in eight of 12 nations from which statistics were taken. They also support a study which found that women reported higher levels of happiness than men in the 1960s but that this gender gap has now reversed. Why the change?
What does this mean when women are healthier, better educated, enjoy more economic freedom and more opportunities than we did 35 years ago? Since the 1960s it has become socially acceptable to leave unhappy marriages. The stigma that once existed around free expression of female sexuality has softened. Legislation is in place to protect women from sexual harassment. By many objective measures, women in the West have never been more liberated.
For all of this improvement many women are unhappy. Freeman, a clinical psychologist, noticed a gap in the literature on sex differences in mental health conditions and investigated national mental health surveys taken from the UK, US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. He found that women are up to 40 per cent more likely than men to develop mental health disorders, with the sharpest discrepancies in depression and anxiety.
Freeman was careful to examine whether women were more likely to report health problems than men, or more willing than men to seek help. In The Stressed Sex, co-written with his brother Jason, and published by Oxford University Press, the authors conclude that while these factors may have an impact they cannot solely explain the differences found between the genders.
They show that while men suffer higher rates of substance abuse, ADHD and autism, women are bearing the brunt of emotional disorders, which are much more common, and rates of these conditions are on the rise. It appears that women’s mental health is in fact a “major public health issue”.
The causes of mental illness are complex. There is no single factor which sets one off, and psychologists will look at a range of variables in an attempt to understand etiology. Biological factors, thought processes and social structures are all involved. Thinking styles such as rumination are heavily implicated in anxiety and depression and genetics also play their role. But Freeman points out that the main contributing factor to the decline in women’s mental health could actually be stress.
Women make constant decisions about how to parcel out their time most efficiently. We have careers and children to juggle as well as relationships and domestic labour. Making a priority of one area always leaves another to be neglected (even just for a short time). Men too face these challenges, but for women it seems these trade-offs are pressure-cooked. The unending negotiation of conflicting life domains takes an emotional toll.
Interestingly, the findings of Freeman were foreshadowed four years ago in a watershed paper by the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, who found that women’s happiness has declined relative to men’s. Looking at data stretching over 35 years, across America and Europe, it was found that women reported higher levels of happiness in the 1960s and were happier relative to men. This gender gap has now reversed, with men the happier sex.
The decline in female subjective wellbeing was found to cut across both class and race and held true for women of all ages, with children and without.
The authors of this rather provocative study avoided providing glib answers to the questions their paper raised. But a decline in 35 years cannot be attributed to such things as genetics – the cause must be largely environmental. Some will say the decline is due to ongoing prejudices against women, structural barriers, and patriarchal oppression. Traditionalists might point out that today in many ways courtship and romance are ‘dead’. Perhaps men are enjoying license for irresponsibility and selfish behavior that was not so permissible in the past.
While these factors may contribute, it could simply be that women are liberated but stressed. More opportunities to succeed mean more opportunities to fail. Anxiety and depression often hit us when we feel as though we don’t measure up. And with so many domains to now excel in, we can’t be blamed for feeling less than adequate for not aspiring for excellence in all of them.
For all of the discussions about work/life balance, what is notably missed from the conversation are such things as self-care and leisure time. Important variables such as exercise, sleep, a healthy diet and social connectedness take a back seat to career and domestic labour in many women’s lives.
If happiness was found to be higher in women 35 years ago, those who speak on women’s behalf might want to rethink the feminist obsession with power, status and economic production. Advocates may want to reconsider the importance of other outcomes such as health and wellbeing. If women really are bearing the brunt of emotional disorders, we have some difficult truths to face up to in regards to why.