Women and Mental Health

Over the past two weeks, the HBO show ‘Girls’ has focused on the mental health challenges of Hannah. We have been introduced to Hannah’s secret – her shameful struggle with anxiety characterized by obsessive tendencies, a necessity to repeat tasks 8 times, often until the point of embarrassment, injury (as we saw last week), and exhaustion.


Girls Logo

In the past, many TV shows have attempted to portray the realities of those struggling to maintain good mental health. These portrayals are often inaccurate, used as the butt of jokes, dangerously perpetuating the stigma too often associated with mental health related struggles. As a recent example, a character on Glee ‘developed’ bulimia, as if to assume that an eating disorder is chosen and then easily eradicated. Such misinformation and lack of seriousness is dangerous – it stops those in need from seeking help from supportive others; it has been estimated that the majority of those with a mental health concern choose to conceal their struggles and avoid professional help. It keeps far too many isolated; 2 out of every 5 people experiencing a mood, anxiety, or substance use disorder will seek assistance. It reduces quality of life.

But to my surprise, ‘Girls’ nailed it. Finally! Mainstream TV discussed a mental illness and did it in the right way; it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t cured after one session or dose of a magic pill, and discussing it wasn’t funny, or natural, or easy. Hannah struggled. Hannah was shamed. Blamed. Hindered. The mental health community was elatedHaving admitted to similar struggles, Lena Dunham portrayed her own experiences with mental illness, and in rare fashion, did it in a way that urged those needing help to reach out and find it.

As someone who has been challenged by maintaining mental health (for a quick and dirty summary of my mental health history you can read a previous post) and is now involved in the mental health community in various capacities, I was excited to hear the response from the feminist community. Surely a story line involving a powerful yet empowering discussion of a ubiquitous health concern that affects nearly half of the world’s population would lead to discussion.

I waited…and it didn’t come. There have been ‘Girls’ related posts about the abortion episode, her consistent nakedness, and a general discussion of virginity. Yet, a raw and accurate portrayal of mental illness went virtually unnoticed by the feminist community. In fact, one of the only pieces I read discussing the ‘Girls’ mental health story line  joked that the writers may have considered calling one of the episodes “Crazy Eights” (poking fun at Hannah’s painstaking compulsion to repeat tasks in sets of 8), and referred to her as “mentally ill” in comparison to her “mentally chill” ex-boyfriend.

I was initially disappointed. Now I’m just sad.

Over the past several decades, feminists have united together with the common goal of bringing a voice to all too common gendered issues: reproductive rights, violence, and income inequality. Brave women, then and now, have made incredible ground on these complex and all too deserving societal issues.

But just as these issues which far too often inhibit the livelihood of women has required us to fight, so too does mental health.

Why? Because mental health is a gendered problem.

The prevalence of common mental illness (examples include anxiety and depression) is significantly higher among women. The World Health Organization suggests that unipolar depression is twice as common in women and is thought to become the second leading cause of worldwide disability by 2020. The culture of violence, too, has resulted in women becoming the largest group to struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

And even when we have the ability to seek assistance, which is a rarity, our gender creates a barrier to appropriate treatment. The paternalism of our medical system continues to negatively impact women. We are much more likely to be diagnosed with depression and prescribed medication as treatment, even when men score similarly on assessment tests. We are also nearly 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. The over representation of women in psychological areas is heightened among women of colour and low economics.

And let’s not forget society’s depiction of postpartum depression, sordidly referred to as the ‘baby blues’, as if to infer that ‘mom is just a little sad’ and it isn’t a very real, very common, and very hazardous psychological concern.

There are significant gender inequalities within mental health. We have fought barriers in order to discuss other taboo subjects, so why aren’t we talking about this?

I know we have a lot of battles to fight, but we have to fight this one. The well-being of millions of women, around the world, are depending on it.


Photocredit:  HBO ‘Girls’ via wikimedia commons

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