09 July 2008

Why women suffer more depression

Even today, depression is considered by many to be a "female disorder", and statistics seem to support this: women with depression do outnumber men four to one.

Even today, depression is considered by many to be a "female disorder", and statistics seem to support this: women with depression do outnumber men four to one. The imbalance in suicide statistics also attests to a major difference between the sexes in their initial likelihood to develop depression, and in their experience of it. Whereas men are four times less likely than women to attempt suicide, they are more likely to succeed.

There are many theories about this. Often overlooked is the similar ratio that exists for most anxiety disorders, particularly panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, and specific phobias.

According to Professor David H Barlow of the State University of New York: "Gender differences in the development of emotional disorders are strongly influenced by perceptions of uncontrollability. If you have a perception of mastery and control over your life and the difficult events that we all encounter, you might experience occasional stress, but not the sense of helplessness that seems so central to the development of anxiety and mood disorders. The source of these differences may be found in our culture, specifically in the sex roles assigned to men and women in our society."

Men are strongly encouraged to be independent, masterful, and assertive, Barlow points out. "Females, on the other hand, are expected to be more passive and sensitive to other people, and perhaps to rely on others more than males do.

"Although these stereotypes are changing, they still describe sex roles as they currently exist, to a large extent. But this culturally induced passivity and dependency may well put women at severe risk for emotional disorders by increasing their sense of uncontrollability and helplessness."

Different values
Other theories in similar vein explain the gender imbalances in depression through the difference in value that men and women place on various areas of their lives. Women tend to place more value on intimate relationships. Disruptions in these relationships, combined with an inability to cope with the disruptions, may be far more damaging to women.

Another gender difference that may well be important, suggested by researcher Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, is that in response to stress and feelings of depression, women tend to ruminate more about their situation and blame themselves for being depressed. Men, on the other hand, following common sexual stereotypes, tend to ignore their feelings and perhaps engage in some alternative activity to take their minds off them. This male behaviour may be therapeutic, since "activating" people who are depressed is an important part of successful therapy for depression.

Sign of 'weakness'
In some cases, the opposite is true. While many men try to conceal their condition, thinking it a sign of weakness to "act moody", some may not even be aware that they do indeed have a problem. The depression then tends to be seen through problems with aggression and substance abuse. The fact men tend to choose more violent or aggressive ways to commit suicide, like shooting themselves as opposed to overdosing on pills, could explain why their attempts are more successful than those of women.

Studies show that male depression may be more rampant than we realise. In the US, a national study revealed that doctors miss the diagnosis of depression in men a full 70% of the time.

Help is available for depression, but until the stigma of mental illness is overcome and sex role stereotypes change, many men will not feel comfortable admitting feelings of depression. While women continue to be at a disadvantage in society, experiencing more discrimination, poverty, sexual harassment and abuse than men, they will continue to be at a greater risk for the development of emotional disorders.

- Information from the Depression and Anxiety Support Group: contact (011) 783 1474

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