• Dr Phoebe Lau

Why Women?

Updated: Feb 27, 2019

Is the question that I often receive. I’ll answer that with another question - ”Why not women?”.  

Female mental wellbeing is an extremely complex issue. The World Health Organisation (WHO) dedicated a 122 page review on women’s mental health, and reading such a review presents more questions than answers [1]. Here, I’m going to refer to “women” as anyone who identifies as a woman, whether or not they were born with female genitalia, but some of the issues that I’m going to refer to are specific to people who were born female, reproductively identified as female, and continue to identify as female. 

I want to be clear that there is a critical place for advocacy in the areas of mens’ mental health, and minority gender identity groups (e.g. trans mental health, non-binary mental health, intersex mental health). Women’s mental health is no better nor more important than the mental health of these groups. I just have a keen interest in women’s emotional wellbeing as I and those close to me identify as women and female. 

Warning: If you’re exposed to the abundance of beautiful women on social media promoting endless happiness and seizing life with bountiful enthusiasm, the following facts may be surprising if not down-right confronting.

So why female? Well, first of all half (49.55%) of the world’s 7.7 billion people are born “female” - so we’re talking about the mental health and emotional wealth of approximately 3.8 billion people. Where 1 in 3 people are affected by anxiety, depression, and/or somatic problems, women have a higher risk of developing these issues. More specifically, depression is twice as common in women than in men [2]. There is a global estimate that 1 in 3 women (35%) have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime [3]. These rates increase in women of sexual minority groups (identify as other than heterosexual) and contribute to further risk of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse [4], and increases the risk of suicide [5]. Reflecting on these rates may trigger a messy combination of bittersweet feelings in some women - knowing that they’re not alone and also saddened or angered that so many women have endured such experiences. Even if we haven’t personally experienced depression, anxiety, or abuse, it may be confronting to realise that a woman in our lives have gone through one or more of these experiences. 

The contributing factors to women’s mental health are complex and diverse, and are largely determined by  social context. I won’t even pretend to touch the surface of these factors. A quick Google Scholar search of “female” and “mental health” finds a dizzying plethora of academic papers with keywords associated to female mental health such as perinatal, reproductive rights, menopause, motherhood, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), Ovarian cancer, victimisation, violence, and sexual control. What strikes me about these keywords is that some pertain only to women, such as female-specific health problems, reproductive rights, motherhood, and menopause. For example, it’s estimated that up to 1 in 10 women experience depression while pregnant, and 1 in 6 women experience depression during the first year of birth [6]. Perimenopausal mental health requires further research with some women experiencing little symptoms and others experiencing changes in mood and an increase in emotional distress [7]

Other keywords give us a glimpse of a broader social and political issue for women. For example, approximately 80% of 50 million people who are affected by violent conflicts, civil wars, disasters, and displacement are women and children - that’s approximately 40 billion women and children affected [2]. In combination with the high prevalence of sexual violence encountered by women, it’s estimated that women are the largest single group affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) [2,3]. There are also socio-economic differentials amongst women, with those at most social disadvantage having lower mental health, poorer social support, and life satisfaction. Women in low socioeconomic groups are more likely to have lower access to resources, education, poorer living and working environments. These disadvantages increase globally for indigenous women [8].

Yet, women make up majority of primary carers in Australia with 70% of Australian women identifying as the primary unpaid carer for children, and 58% of women identifying as the primary unpaid carer of the elderly or disabled. They spend twice as many hours in unpaid care work during the week than men. Additionally, women have traditionally dominated care professions such as nurses (78.1%), age and disabled carers (80.1%), teachers (85.3% primary; 61.8% secondary), and child care workers (95.1%) [9]. With women dominating care-taking in both personal and professional arenas the psychological costs of caring for others is significant. Such costs would most likely have ripple effects to the wider community given women are more likely to take-on care-giving roles. This also comes at a personal financial cost, where the average superannuation balance (retirement savings) for women aged between 60 - 64 years old are just above half (58%) of those of men [10]

If we look up the socioeconomic ladder, there still remains a significant gender disparity. The number of women on ASX-listed company Boards increased from 8.3% (2009) to 26.2% (2017) in less than a decade - but we are a long way from parity [9]. Female representation in leadership is critical for the growth of the economy. A report by Deloitte from 2016 [11] details the academic findings of increased financial returns (return on assets and return on equity) when women are represented on the Board of Directors. Gender parity on all Boards, including the not-for-profit sector, has been shown to bolster financial management as measured by the degree of efficiency at which funds are distributed and levels of fundraising. 

Photo by Katherine Hanlon

So, I dare someone to ask, “why women?”.  We have a long way to go to close the mental health gap and the gender disparity across positions of power and privilege. Imagine if we could empower all women, providing them with the means of finding their voice, challenge their self-doubt, step onto the wider area, and find their way out of emotional destitution.  It’s a tall task but that doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye - there’s so much to be lost if we ignore the critical part of women’s emotional wellbeing. Simply put, when women are emotionally wealthy, the world benefits.

#womensmentalhealth #mentalhealth #womensadvocacy #womensrights #feminist #womenwholead #womenforwomen #therapy #therapyforwomen #innercollective #womenforwomen #melbourneclinicalpsychologist

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