Why Is Women’s Mental Health so Bad?
more importantly, why haven’t we fixed it yet?
One year ago, in June 2022, I self-published my debut novel, Sweet Baby Mine, born out of my years working with women diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and being treated for behaviors in which they chose to hurt themselves, AKA self-harm, self-injury, non-suicidal self-harm, self-mutilation, self-inflicted violence, and non-suicidal self-injury.
So, Why Do They Do It?
No doubt there are as many explanations as the day is long, but most women report coping with depression, anxiety, or emotional trauma is difficult, and hurting oneself is one way to temporarily manage these emotions. These include cutting, burning, head banging, biting, scratching, hitting oneself with objects, and piercing or inserting objects under the skin. There are plenty of other forms, too, like picking at wounds or pouring foreign substances over them so they can’t heal, yanking or pulling one’s hair out, abusing drugs and/or alcohol, and having dangerous sex. Not included is BDSM (i.e., sexual activity that includes sadism and masochism) which partners provide rules and safe words during sexual activity. And, across the globe, it’s on the rise.
A recent article in The Guardian reports that in the past 20 years, one in five women ages 16 to 74 have hurt themselves. While rates among 16-24 year-olds show the most significant increase (6.5% in 2000 to 19.7% in 2014), rates among girls were the most dramatic (68% between 2013 and 2017).
why the Increase?
Physical and sexual abuse are key reasons why so many more women than men self-harm. Poor mental health among women and girls is often closely linked to violence and abuse, which can come in the form of physical abuse by a partner and sexual abuse experienced as either a child or an adult.
There are many other explanations, too, some of which include the Covid crisis and the effects of the pandemic, the impact of income inequality, women’s lower socioeconomic status, how women, more so than men, are expected to assume the role of caregiver, and the impact of gender-based discrimination, but it hardly matters because the result is the same: rates of worsening mental health among women are on the rise.
It’s no surprise. Women live in a culture biased against empowering girls, which diminishes our feelings of self-worth.
Little boys are encouraged to leave the nest and explore their world, providing them with the opportunity to develop their independence. Girls, however, are taught to conform, acquiesce, and obey. Instead of learning to break new ground, little girls are instructed to place the needs of others ahead of their own. They’re taught to nurture and care for others—first men, then children.
Women are brought up to believe that what they do for others is more important than what they do for themselves. They’re also brought up accepting as fact that if they do a good job caring for these others (husbands, kids, parents, bosses, coworkers—the list goes on), then they’re a good person—and this is the only time they’re a good person. Thus, women develop their self-esteem through the eyes of others. They must depend on others understand their value in the world.
Ultimately, this puts women in a position of believing they don’t deserve good things to happen for them unless they’re giving themselves away. I’m only happy when you’re happy. The implication being they don’t have any needs of their own. That their whole purpose in life is to benefit others.
It’s a bad message. It forces women into a state of dependency and demands they assume a subservient role; a role de Beauvoir called the object to the man’s subject. The compliant to the assertive. The server to the receiver. The full text of the quote is below:
“She is defined and differentiated with reference to man, and not he with reference to her—she is incidental, the inessential, as opposed to the essential. He is the subject, he is the ‘absolute,’ she is the ‘other.’” Simone de Beauvoir
Years ago, a friend told me that before she married her husband, her mother pulled her aside and told her to think of marriage like sharing a sandwich—when you cut it, always make sure to give your husband the bigger half.
Huh? It’s not a lesson that leaves much room for viewing marriage as a partnership.
Okay, I get it. All she was saying was to put his needs first. Show him you care for him somehow, even if it’s just giving him part of your sandwich. So, why am I using this example as a way of showing how women give themselves away? Isn’t caregiving a good thing?
Yes, it is, and please don’t think I’m saying it isn’t. What I’m saying is, when done at the expense of tending to our needs, it’s a bad thing—which is what so many of us do as women. We learn to care for everyone around us without learning to care for ourselves.
Yet learning to care for oneself is significant to a healthy wellbeing.
Let’s Take It a Step Further
White second-wave feminists suggest that a lifetime of this form of sexist indoctrination manifests in women in psychiatric ways. They say conditions such as hysteria, depression, or anxiety are related to women’s eroding belief in their sense of self-competence and lead to feelings of overwhelming anger, fear, and powerlessness.
In light of this, they propose that acts of cruelty, self-harm, and masochism should be seen as the normal result of oppression turned inward and that mental illnesses, like borderline personality disorder, are learned. They believe that in some situations, women discover that specific defense mechanisms help them deal with difficult situations, like an abusive childhood or a neglectful upbringing. Or that a particular coping strategy will prevent them from succumbing to intolerant cultural and societal expectations. Or that certain mental illnesses are not mental illnesses at all but are variations of post-traumatic stress disorder.
What if BPD is really just a fucked-up response to a fucked-up situation?
Then what if it gets passed down from generation to generation? Grandmother to mother; mother to daughter.
It’s a mouthful. I get it. It’s a trip down the rabbit hole. But it’s the kind of literature that says to me that when everything in our lives goes to shit, it could push us into areas of our mind we might not go to, except we desperately need to find a way to cope with the darkness and the overwhelming hopelessness, so we’ll go there.
Don’t believe me? Check out this article I stumbled across last fall about how tens of thousands of women in Afghanistan are succumbing to conversion disorder—a psychogenic illness. And the situation has only worsened since then. Even after decades of study, doctors can’t explain the specific causes of mass psychogenic illness, or why the condition mostly affects women and girls. Even less is understood about why it’s happening to the women and girls of Afghanistan, but rates have skyrocketed since the Taliban took over the country.
Seriously? No one knows the reason? How are women—anywhere in the world—expected to live their lives when they’ve been silenced? When they’ve been made invisible? How does anyone survive this?
It’s beyond inhumane, and if you’re a woman, and you’re reading this, it should make your blood boil.
It does mine.
Maybe this is an extreme example, but these women are living under extreme conditions.
Where Do We Go from Here?
As I said at the start of this article, the real question is, how do we fix this?
We vote. We vote every time there’s an election. We don’t sit them out. Not voting doesn’t make a statement, it only allows the other side to shut you down. Refuse to let anyone decide what you can and can’t do with your body and your life without your permission.
Get involved. Do something, anything. Volunteer for organizations that are trying to make a change in the areas that interest you the most. And if you can’t donate your time, donate a few dollars. Every bit helps.
Read. Stay up to date on the latest information concerning women’s issues and women’s mental health so you know what’s happening.
And if you’re the one who is having a difficult time managing your mental or emotional state, find help. Find someone to work with you. I’m a psychologist. I will always advocate for seeking out a good therapist in the genre of your choice (i.e., talk therapy, cognitive behavioral treatment, mindfulness, etc.). Then talk about it if you’re comfortable doing so. Let’s also end the stigma around psychiatric treatment while we’re busy fixing things up around here.