12 March 2004

Depression and women

It is widely accepted that depression is more common in women than it is in men. The ratio is so disproportionate in fact that it is estimated that up to 70% of people suffering from depression are women.

It is widely accepted that depression is more common in women than it is in men. The ratio is so disproportionate in fact that it is estimated that up to 70% of people suffering from depression are women.

This stark disparity has led theorists to ask: why are women so much more susceptible to depression than men? Various answers to this question have been proposed and it has become clear that all these factors, combined, contribute in some way to this trend.

One of these answers looks at how susceptibility to depression is linked very closely to an individual’s perception of how "controllable" their environment is. Theorists have proposed that the more one believes that one has mastery and control over one’s life, the less likely one is to develop depression.

In our society males are encouraged to be assertive, independent and masterful. Women on the other hand are encouraged to be more passive, sensitive and perhaps to rely on others more than males are. It is believed that these culturally prescribed gender-roles place women at greater risk of developing depression.

Another answer offered looks at the response women tend to take to stress and depression.

Women have a tendency to ruminate more about their circumstances and blame themselves for their reaction to them.

Men on the other hand tend to ignore their feelings and engage in various distracting activities. The male approach is often the healthier one, where he is able to take his mind off his problems and focus on something else instead.

At a disadvantage
In addition, it has been argued that women are at a distinct disadvantage in our society, as they experience more prejudice, poverty, sexual harassment and abuse than men do. They also earn less and garner less power and status than men do.

Another answer given looks at role conflict and the burden of working and being a good mother at the same time. Juggling these dual roles in a relatively unsympathetic corporate climate can cause an incredible amount of stress in women’s lives and can trigger depression.

Who seeks treatment?
It has also been proposed that the statistics available on the male to female ratio reflect the disparity in terms of who actually seeks treatment, and not who is in fact suffering from depression. It has been argued that women, having been socialised to express feelings and to talk about issues that are bothering them, are more receptive to seeking treatment.

Men, on the other hand, often see "feelings" as abstract concepts and often don’t want to admit that they could possibly suffer from a "weakness" like depression.

Finally, it is important to note that women are in many ways slaves to their hormones in ways that men just aren’t. Hormones impact directly on brain chemistry and can therefore directly trigger a depressive episode. Women deal with hormone fluctuations every month, when they fall pregnant, and at menopause. These fluctuations can be just what a woman, with a predisposition towards depression, needs to develop full-blown clinical depression.

In the case of menopause specifically, women do react differently to the process. Some are relieved never have to have another period, whilst others feel less attractive and experience a sense of loss of their femininity.

A range of uncomfortable "symptoms" may be experienced by the pre-menopausal woman, including hot flushes, low libido, cramps, difficulty concentrating and depression. It is important to stress that hormones alone don’t "cause" depression, but that they may trigger an already-present predisposition.

For the woman experiencing mercurial moods as a result of her hormone fluctuations, whether once monthly, during pregnancy or because she’s menopausal, there is an effective treatment. Speak to your doctor about hormone replacement therapy. In a case where the mercurial moods have descended into a full-blown clinical depression, the hormone therapy will probably not be sufficient. Additional medication and/or psychotherapy may be called for.

Information supplied by the Depression and Anxiety Support Group, (011) 884-1797 or (011) 783-1474/6.

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