Gender differences in the pattern and rate of mental illness

Various pressures created by the multiple roles women need to fulfil; including gender discrimination, income inequality, sexual abuse as well as substance abuse, collectively combine to account for women’s poor mental health globally, affecting them disproportionately.

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There is also a positive relationship between the frequency and severity of the above-mentioned social factors and the frequency and severity of mental health problems in women.

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Severe life events that cause a sense of loss, inferiority, humiliation or entrapment can predict depression.

This is according to Dr Eileen Thomas, a psychiatrist affiliated with Akeso clinics and Panorama Healthcare. According to her, extant literature furthermore points to the increase in common mental disorders among women globally.

“This may be due to many varying and confluent factors, inter alia, a greater awareness of mental disorders, increased accessibility of mental health care services that screen and diagnose these disorders, and the increasing prevalence of precipitating and perpetuating stressors such as violence, poverty, disparity in health services and stigma.”


“Gender is a critical determinant of mental health and mental illness. It determines the differential power and control men and women have over the socioeconomic determinants of their mental health and lives, their social position, status and treatment in society and their susceptibility and exposure to specific mental health risks,” Dr Thomas explained.


Gender differences occur particularly in the rates of common mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and somatic complaints.

“There are also certain types of depression that are unique to women. Some women may experience symptoms of mental disorders at times of hormone change, such as perinatal depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and perimenopause-related depression.”

Women with severe mental illness, including mood and psychotic disorders, appear to have elevated risks of being both victims and perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), with an estimated IPV rate of 10 to 30 per cent in South Africa.

A recent rural study in the Witzenberg area showed rates as high as 50 per cent of participants suffering from postnatal depression, whilst studies in peri-urban areas indicate a prevalence of 30 to 40 per cent.

“Gender differences also exist in patterns of help seeking for psychological disorder. Women are more likely to seek help from and disclose mental health problems to their primary health care physician while men are more likely to seek specialist mental health care and are the principal users of inpatient care.”


“Although each mental health problem may present with its own set of specific features the key feature that defines whether someone is suffering from a mental health problem or not, is their ability to function in their usual social; and occupational roles,” Dr Thomas stressed.

Examples would be employed women who previously were very social, but then start to struggle at work due to lack of concentration or not meeting work-targets, or females who become withdrawn, not socialising with friends or family anymore.


Occurring in different degrees of severity, milder forms of certain mental health problems can be managed and treated by a general practitioner, but ideally treatment should be sought from a mental health professional who is well versed in treating the specific disorder.

“Treatment approaches are individualised and take into account the individual’s preferences, available medical funding, comorbid disorders and may include pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. Other important components of treatment include exercise, support groups and general self-care.”

Tips for women to keep mentally fit and healthy throughout their life:

* Live your best life, you have only have one life to live, life it to the fullest.

* Be kind to yourself.

* Ensure self-care: adequate rest, nutrition, and physical wellness.

* Schedule pleasurable activities. All human beings need something to look forward to, meet a friend for coffee, phone your sibling or treat yourself to a movie.

* Exercise, and partake in physical activity that you enjoy.

* Create a social support network, this may include friends, colleagues, family, church-members or join online support groups.

* Don’t keep secrets. Never feel ashamed to admit if you are not coping. If you are not okay, speak to someone, you are more likely to be experiencing something that many others have gone through already.

* Know your personal and family history of mental illness, as well as your general health history. This informs health care providers of possible risk, vulnerability, and best treatment options.

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