Women and Mental Health
March is Women’s History Month and a prime opportunity to talk about the particular experiences of women, and how those affect their mental and emotional health. A specific range of environmental and sociological factors affect women’s mental health, and they have particular needs. Women are nearly twice as likely to report depression as men(1), and more than one and a half times more likely to report anxiety(2), and they are at higher risk of several experiences which carry risk for later trauma(3). The unique needs of women often include trauma-informed care and understanding of the ways in which women and people of marginalized gender experience systemic harm.
Women face particular challenges, often directly connected to their sex and/or gender. They (along with trans individuals) are at higher risk for multiple forms of sexual assault(4), and they have a higher likelihood of violent victimization by an intimate partner(5) than are men. People who have experienced pregnancy report higher rates of depression, mood shifts, and postpartum trauma, depression, and anxiety following the birth of a child(6). Women and people of marginalized genders are more likely to suffer from eating disorders(7). All of these factors contribute to a high possibility of traumatic experiences which may negatively affect mental health.
Trauma-informed care is of major importance in responding to a world in which women and trans people are victimized at high rates, and it’s critical to understand how trauma impacts the way people move through the world. The work of Bessel Van Der Kolk (author of The Body Keeps the Score) has significantly influenced our approach and understanding of how to reach people where they are, especially women, with their particular experiences. Van Der Kolk emphasizes the way that trauma resides in bodily memories, and the way that treatment is often most effective when it pulls from different practices and focuses on the holistic picture of the person and their experiences. Such skillsets are crucial for working with populations with high experiences of trauma, and women (and especially women marginalized in other ways, including by race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, etc) have a number of ways in which they are more likely to experience trauma and related mental health challenges.
Another factor that influences women and people of marginalized genders in particular – one that our practice focuses on - is living in a fatphobic world. Women in particular are expected to perform a specific kind of femininity, which often fosters harmful eating and exercise habits. Much has been written on the impact of a society which values women as bodies first and people second, and a book that I’m particularly excited to read and include in our practice is More than a Body, by Lexie and Lindsay Kite. Having grown up receiving so many harmful messages about appearance being the greatest value women bring to the world, we understand firsthand the importance of having better tools to understand the potential of women outside of their physical appearance.
A broader picture goal that we have, in addition to helping individual women heal from trauma, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and more, is to change the world we live in, so less of that healing is required. Our world undervalues the many meaningful contributions of women, or occasionally overvalues very limited ideas of what it means to be a woman – in both cases, reducing them to an object. Our world makes it harder to live safely, to trust intimate partners, to seek our own development as well as the development of people we care for, and we want to be part of changing those things. There is more we can do as a society to remove systemic barriers to women’s flourishing, and more we can do to value women as people.
7. Stice E, Marti CN, Shaw H, and Jaconis M. (2010). An 8-year longitudinal study of the natural history of threshold, subthreshold, and partial eating disorders from a community sample of adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 118(3):587-97. doi: 10.1037/a0016481.
8. Van der Kolk, B.A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.
9. Kite, L and Kite, L. (2020). More than a body: Your body is an instrument, not an ornament. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.