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Issue 2 * 09 December 2023

Women and Mental Health Problems

Dr Linda de Caestecker

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Women and Mental Health Problems

The leading causes of disease in women such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders are also causes of ill health in men but they have different underlying gender-specific risk factors.  Anxiety and depression are increasing more quickly in women than in men. Effective treatment requires understanding the different dimensions for women compared to men, but this understanding is often lacking.  In the UK today over 20% of adult women have a common mental disorder with anxiety or mood-related disorders being the most common.  (Activity in the NHS | The King's Fund ( common are mental health problems? - Mind)

Some disorders are more common in younger women but anxiety is as common among older adults as the young.  Key factors that can impact the occurrence and nature of anxiety in older women are hormonal changes but also fears about future health, the existence of chronic health conditions and life transitions such as retirement or children leaving home can contribute.  Anxiety can also show itself differently in women over 60 with persistent and excessive worry about everyday situations.  Anxiety can also cause physical symptoms such as headaches, abdominal upsets or nausea. ( Senior Women | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA)

Despite growing evidence that non-drug interventions and talking therapies are effective, a growing number of particularly younger women are being prescribed medications.  Women show more side effects to psychotropic medications, including greater weight gain, cardiovascular effects, and more general premature ageing, yet mental health clinicians remain largely unaware that side effects are gendered. (Trends in antipsychotic prescribing to children and adolescents in England: cohort study using 2000–19 primary care data - The Lancet Psychiatry)

The British Medical Association (BMA) published a report in 2018 updated in 2021 on “Addressing Unmet Needs in Women’s Mental Health” describing the differences between women and men in how they express mental distress, particularly in common mental disorders such as anxiety, depression or eating disorders.  There are also well-known links between the risks of mental illness and the social realities of many women’s lives such as lower incomes, responsibility for childcare and other caring responsibilities as well as domestic violence.  The report shows how services need to recognise and respond to the specific needs of women if care is to be personalised and effective.  bma-womens-mental-health-report-aug-2018.pdf

The BMA report concentrates on the need for a gender-sensitive approach to psychiatric services but the same principles would apply to primary care or third sector services and support for women experiencing poor mental health.  The report describes the characteristics of gender-sensitive services including women themselves being involved in their design and services and staff being sensitive to the diversity of women’s lives and experiences.  The report calls for a greater awareness of the need for a gender-informed approach to mental health and for a workforce trained in gender differences.

Although most new developments in mental health relate to advances in drug treatments, telehealth, chatbots and app implementation for non-drug treatments are now being researched and shown to be effective.  Goldster provides key non-drug interventions including meditation, journaling, creative classes and yoga and Tai Chi which can all improve mental health. 


What can you do if you are experiencing mental health problems?

  • Recognising anxiety or depression in yourself and its potential impact on you and your circumstances is key to addressing it. These illnesses are just as debilitating and difficult to cope with as physical illnesses and we all have a role in reducing the stigma attached to mental health problems;
  • Don’t wait to seek help until your symptoms are overwhelming;
  • If you are seeking help from your GP or another clinician, prepare ahead of your visit about what you want to discuss and the questions you have. Be honest with the clinician and be willing to give them an awareness of what is going on in your life that may be contributing to your symptoms.  Don’t be afraid to question your doctor on the treatment they recommend and ask about non-drug interventions;
  • Given the need for a gender-sensitive approach, you may find it helpful to look for a women’s centre in your area that provides mental health support and go there for help;
  • Talk about your feelings to friends and family ideally not to the exclusion of everything else;
  • Exercise is very good for our mental health so be sure to become or stay active whether it is walking or a Goldster class. This can really help your mood;
  • Make sleep a priority and stick to a sleep schedule;
  • Think about purpose and how you can help or support others or do paid or voluntary work that has meaning for you. Within this, set goals and priorities some of which may be saying no to new tasks if they will make you feel overloaded;
  • Remember you are not alone and many women are also suffering from mood disorders or anxiety, it is not anything to be ashamed of and there is help available.
  • You yourself may not have mental health problems but if you have a family member or friend who does, remember you can help them by setting aside dedicated time with no distractions to talk to them, letting them lead the discussion at their pace, not second-guessing their feelings, encouraging self-care and also offering them help in seeking professional support if needed.

Some helpful links are shown below