Mental health in women and mental health in men: Understanding the differencesPosted on: November 17, 2023
by Ben Nancholas
People today tend to understand that mental health is an essential component of healthcare more generally, and can have an impact on virtually every other aspect of a person’s life and wellbeing. What’s less recognised, however, is that mental health experiences can differ based on gender, with both men and women facing unique challenges and vulnerabilities.
Understanding the gender differences in mental health, shedding light on disparities, and examining the gender-specific factors that influence mental health outcomes is essential for:
- developing effective gender-sensitive interventions that address the unique challenges faced by each gender
- providing the best healthcare possible to all genders, and improving health outcomes for all
- creating a more inclusive healthcare service that benefits everyone
Exploring the gender gap
The difference in mental health statistics between men and women is known as the gender gap. This gap is seen across different mental illnesses as well as different mental health treatments.
Anxiety and depression
According to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, one in six adults has a common mental health problem, which includes conditions such as anxiety disorders and depressive disorders. But when the figures are broken down by sex, it becomes one in five women, and one in eight men.
The prevalence of depression and other mental health disorders that women experience is also on the rise. For example, women are now twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety as men.
A 2018 report from the UK government’s Women’s Mental Health Taskforce found that young women in particular are at risk, with more than a quarter (26%) experiencing a common mental disorder – almost three times more than young men (9.1%).
Other psychiatric disorders and conditions
There are statistics that support the notion of sex differences in schizophrenia, with women more likely to develop the condition in later life, and to show more depressive symptoms during its onset.
Women are also more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – according to PTSD UK, age 55-64 is the only age group where men are more likely to screen positive than women for PTSD – as well as phobias.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, have significantly higher levels in women and girls than in men and boys. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) estimates that there are more than 700,000 people in the UK who have an eating disorder – and 90% of these people are female.
There is a significant gender gap when looking at the number of deaths by suicide in the UK, with men three times as likely to die by suicide when compared to women.
The Mental Health Foundation reports that this ratio has been the case since the mid-1990s, and that men between the ages of 40 and 49 are the most at risk. Alongside these details, the Foundation also shares a meta-analysis that notes:
- Men report lower levels of life satisfaction than women.
- Nearly three-quarters of adults who go missing are men.
- 87% of rough sleepers are men.
- Men are nearly three times as likely as women to become dependent on alcohol, and three times as likely to report frequent substance abuse.
- Men are more likely to be compulsorily detained (or ‘sectioned’) for treatment than women.
- Men are more likely to be victims of violent crime.
- Men make up the vast majority of the prison population, with higher rates of mental health problems and increased rates of self-harm in prisons.
Reports of self-harm are higher in women and girls, and this trend is on the rise.
“Rates of hospital admission as a result of self-harm in children and young people (aged 10-24) are considerably higher for females than males,” reports the Nuffield Trust. “Between 2012/13 and 2021/22, the rate for females rose from 508 admissions per 100,000 population to 711 per 100,000 population – an increase of 40%.”
Meanwhile, there has been an inverse trend in the incidences of self-harm in males, with the rate decreasing by 22% (from 193 per 100,000 general population to 154 per 100,000 general population) over the same period.
Mental health treatment
Disparities in accessing mental health care are also evident along gender lines. For example, men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women, with only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies for men.
Meanwhile, many women report being unsatisfied with existing psychopathology and mental health services because they fail to take gender into account.
On this subject, the Women’s Mental Health Taskforce explains: “This can lead to situations where services can be inadvertently discriminatory towards women because they have been designed, whether consciously or unconsciously, around the needs of men. Women described challenges in their experiences of mental health services, including problems building trusting relationships with staff, and a profound lack of voice or control. Those who had been in inpatient settings described a lack of ongoing support or aftercare, and a feeling of being ‘left to get on with it’ when they left hospital.”
In its 2018 report, Addressing Unmet Needs in Women’s Mental Health, the British Medical Association also noted that there are well-established links between the risks of mental illness and the social realities of women’s lives.
The report states: “These include women’s relatively lower incomes and access to household
resources and responsibility for childcare and other caring responsibilities, as well as
sexual abuse and domestic violence. Gender-neutral approaches to service provision fail to recognise the specific needs of women. If health and social care truly is to be personalised, it must recognise the social context for women’s lives and respond appropriately to gendered differences in mental health.”
Exploring potential contributors to the mental health gender gap
There are a number of possible explanations for mental health’s gender gap. The Lancet Psychiatry notes that further mental health research is required to improve “therapeutic approaches for both women and men,” and by better understanding contributing risk factors and predictors, healthcare and public health professionals can help to lessen the gap.
Psychosocial and gender-related pressures can impact mental health differently for men and women.
For example, women – and particularly young women – are often faced with unrealistic beauty standards that can create body image concerns and self-esteem issues, especially on platforms such as social media. Women often report unreasonable expectations to juggle multiple roles and responsibilities, such as caregiving and careers. They are also more likely to struggle with biological factors and life events, such as postnatal depression or the menopause.
On the other hand, men may face stressors related to conforming to traditional masculinity norms, which discourage vulnerability and emotional expression.
Social support plays an important role in mental health outcomes, but support systems can vary greatly based on gender.
For example, women are more likely to seek – and provide – emotional support, which is linked to better psychological wellbeing. Men, however, are often challenged by societal expectations around masculinity. These notions can discourage men from help-seeking for their mental health issues, which in turn can contribute to delayed interventions and even exacerbate conditions such as substance use.
The British Medical Association (BMA) notes that women are often hampered in accessing adequate support due to the lack of resources and low incomes created by the social construction of gender roles and expectations:
“The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies the power differential between women and men and their access to resources in society and in the home, alongside sexual and domestic violence, as profoundly shaping women’s mental health and the global disparities in their wellbeing,” the BMA states. “Thus, the gender differences in mental health are underpinned by socio-economic realities which can disadvantage women and restrict their ability to access the support and resources they need to cope in the face of adversity.”
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