Some Aspects of Depression are Unique to Women

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

The other day, I met this woman who held a full time job, raised her kids, cleaned the house, did the laundry, and cooked very evening and weekend for her husband and children.  She was complaining, "I can't "hack it any more."  She drags through her day, exhausted, lacking appetite,  sleep, and joy of life.  This scenarion is repeated in the lives of so many others.  Another woman feels worthless and guilty because she is unable to take care of her newborn.  Still another woman, following hysterectomy (or menopause), sits in silence for long periods throughout the day and has become woefully neglectful of her responsibilities.  Her husband laments that his wife who used to be so good- humored, lively, motivated, interested, and on top of everything, now hardly smiles, has lost interest in everything, and flies off the handle at the slightest excuse.  I hear such stories over and over again.  

 The rate of depression is double in women as when compared with men.  Why are women disproportionately affected by depression? The answer may lie in features that are unique to women's lives such as,  hormones and puberty, reproductive cycle,  psychological and personality characteristics, and social pressures both at the workplace and home.  This is not all.  Abuse, oppression, and other forms of victimization have a lot to do with depression in women.   

 Studies show that more female high school students suffer from depression than their male counterparts.  Boys and girls tend to react differently when they are upset, angry, or hurt.  Girls tend to "internalize," that is, they absorb the pain and suffer quietly, while boys tend to "externalize," that is, they deflect the pain and someone else suffers with them.  This difference can be inferred by the fact that adolescent girls have significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders, while adolescent boys have higher rates of disruptive behavior disorders.  In girls, the social pressure, dramatic change in roles and expectations, peer pressure from the same sex , and pressure from boys takes its toll by this age.  Add to that the stress of physical, intellectual, and hormonal changes which present their own challenges.     

 It would be absurd to think that the reason more women get depressed is because they are mentally or emotionally weaker than men.  Rather, we should be looking in to the nature of the multi-dimensional stresses women face.  Working women often face sexual discrimination and harassment at work.  Most carry a major responsibility at home.  What about caring for children?  Single parenting in a male-oriented society is a formidable task.  It becomes even more formidable when a woman's ex- has not gotten over the divorce and attempts to put roadblocks on every step of the way in her taking charge and caring for the children.         

 More women than men care for their disabled partners.  More women care for their disabled or otherwise dependent adult children.  And, more women take care of their aging parents.  How these demands and challenges contribute to depression is not yet fully understood, but it is obvious that such care-giving roles generate a long-term ongoing stress on both men and women.  Long-term ongoing stress is associated with various types of emotional disorders including depression.

 Relationships play a central role in a woman's life.  Some social scientists even propose that relationships are the center of a woman's life.  Let's look at their arguments in support of this position.  More women than men suffer from depression when divorced or separated;  The quality of marriage affects women more than men.  Studies show that "lack of an intimate, confiding relationship," as well as  marital disputes contribute to depression in women.  Marital tension affects women more than the separation or divorce.  In one study, separated, divorced, and married women were compared with regard to depression.  The unhappily married women came out the worst.  

 Puberty, menstrual cycle, pregnancy, child birth, and menopause may cause "mood swings."   These mood swings consist of switching from a normal mood to a depressed mood, angry mood, or a "frenzy" for no apparent reason.  Hormones are suspected to be the main culprits here but exactly how hormones contribute to depressed moods is not yet clear.  The idea that a relationship between hormones and moods exists seems to have already been embraced by our society.  The other day, a mother, referring to her pubescent daughter's crying and angry outbursts, said, "She is very hormonal today."  No further debates or arguments necessary regarding the mood-hormone controversy.  It was as if the mother was saying to me, "The jury is in, doc!.  What are you waiting for?"      

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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