Women and Depression: Understanding the Gender Gap

By Floria, Barbara

Everyone feels worried, anxious, or sad from time to time. But when a woman has a true mental health disorder, including depression, she finds it hard to function normally.

“A woman’s unique biological, social, and cultural factors may increase her risk for depression,” says Jack Akester, Ph.D., a board member of the group Mental Health America.

The risk isn't greater because of a greater vulnerability, but because of the particular stresses many women face, Dr. Akester says.

Variety of stressors

These stressors often include conflicting responsibilities at work and home, as well as caring for children and aging parents.

Still, research indicates depression can be caused by a variety of factors:

  • Genetics. You have a greater risk of developing depression if you have a family history of the illness. Not everybody with a family history of the condition develops depression, though. Depression can occur in people who have no family members with the illness.

  • Brain chemistry. People with depression usually have a problem with brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.

  • Environment and stress. The death of a loved one, abusive relationships, financial problems, or a major life change can contribute to depression. Sometimes depression can begins at the same time as a physical illness.

  • Mental characteristics. Women are more likely to be depressed if they are pessimistic, worry excessively, have low self-esteem, or feel they have little control over their lives.

  • Adolescence. Before adolescence, boys and girls have the same rate of depression. Between ages 11 and 13, however, depression rates for girls increase dramatically, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. By age 15, girls are twice as likely to have suffered from depression as boys.

Signs of depression

Having symptoms of depression doesn’t mean a person is depressed.

“It’s not unusual for someone who has lost a loved one or sustained a financial setback to feel sad, helpless, and disinterested in regular activities,” Dr. Akester says. “Only when these symptoms persist over time is there reason to suspect depression.”

If several of the following behaviors or feelings continue for at least two weeks, talk with your health care provider:

  • Persistent sadness or anxiety

  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities, including sex

  • Restlessness, irritability, or crying

  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, or hopelessness

  • Needing too much or too little sleep, early-morning awakening

  • Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain

  • Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling “slowed down”

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions

  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts

Proven treatments

These are treatment steps that lead to healing:

  • Know the symptoms of depression.

  • Seek help from your health care provider or a mental health professional.

  • Agree to and stick with a treatment plan. Common treatments for depression are antidepressant medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.

“Even severe depression is highly responsive to treatment,” Dr. Akester says. “In fact, up to 80 percent of women who receive appropriate care do recover."

Treatment won't take away your stress or disappointments in life, he says, but it can help you better manage those challenges.

Medical Reviewer: Whorton, Donald, M.D. Last Annual Review Date: 2011-01-02T00:00:00-07:00 Copyright: © Health Ink & Vitality Communications

Reference: Depression section on Better Medicine