Women face more mental health stigma than men


Being alone with your unwanted thoughts can be one of the loneliest places on the planet.

Being alone with your unwanted thoughts can be one of the loneliest places on the planet. For people suffering from mental health, a constant inner monologue of anxiety, depression, fear or panic can lead to exhaustion, defeat and helplessness.

Sufferers should be encouraged to seek support from professionals, friends or family, but are studies and statistics on mental health having the opposite effect?

The most recent stats on mental health are from a study launched by Time to Change as part of a campaign to encourage people to talk about mental illness. The study revealed that 53 per cent of female sufferers experience discrimination from their family and friends, compared to 39 per cent of men.

These findings raise two obvious questions; Is publishing statistics like this really going to encourage mental health sufferers to speak out? And why are women stigmatised more than men? Both need urgent answers if other sufferers are to find the courage to ask for the help they deserve.

Let’s look at the stats themselves, the nitty gritty numbers which all of these bold statements are based upon. For example, The Mental Health Foundation states: ‘Women are more likely to have been treated for a mental health problem than men (29% compared to 17%)’ and that ‘Women are twice as likely to experience anxiety as men.’

The numbers question

This is all very concrete and if nothing else makes people suffering from mental health issues realise that they are certainly not alone. But how can we judge the effects of mental health on statistics, when it is impossible to calculate how many people are actually affected? We will never know how many men or women suffer in silence or how many are undiagnosed.

Mental illness is not the same for men and women and they have different symptoms and coping strategies. Maybe it isn’t fair to directly compare the treatment of men and women and the stigmatisation they face from friends and family. 

Could it not be that women face more stigmatisation than men purely because they speak out more, and that men face less stigmatisation because they are less likely to tell their friends and family in the first place?

Really, the focus should be on getting to the bottom of why there is still stigmatisation, instead of seeing who gets the most! People who don’t suffer from mental illness often find it impossible to relate to because they can’t understand how someone isn’t in control of their own thoughts.

Jessica Martin, a 22-year-old professional from Manchester had her first experience with minor mental health problems at university. When I asked her how long it took her to confide in someone she said, “It was about four months until I told my Mum. I didn’t think anything was clinically wrong with me, I just thought I was unhappy and being stupid. I had never really heard about mental health problems before it actually happened to me.”

A 25-year-old male, in a similar situation answered the same question. He said, “I don’t know how long I had been suffering before I told anyone because I didn’t realise myself how much it was affecting me for quite a while. After I’d recognised how bad it was getting, it was about 6 months before I knew it wasn’t going to go away on its own and I needed to talk to someone.”

Interestingly, the women knew instantly that something had changed where as the man did not realise that his mental state had changed until it had gotten really bad.

An impossible summary

Aha, another statistic from the Mental Health Foundation! But this one helps to illustrate how men and women behave differently. ‘Men are more likely than women to have an alcohol or drug problem. 67% of British people who consume alcohol at ‘hazardous’ levels, and 80% of those dependent on alcohol, are male.’

Is this our answer? Are men turning to alcohol and drugs to numb their mental illness whilst women are talking to their friends, family and doctors? The correlation is not clear and I am certainly in no position to start making medical claims, but it does prove the point that men and women are different and we cannot summarise mental health as a set of no nonsense statistics.

When someone wakes up every day wondering what fears they will encounter, whether or not they will have a panic attack or if they should even get out of bed at all, they need to know that they have someone to turn to. Every sufferer, man or women, must find the best coping strategy to suit them and if they do face stigma, they must understand that there are other outlets to turn to. It’s not about hard numbers and definite facts.

After all, mental illness is about human emotion and happiness.

What do you think of this study? Does a particular gender have a stigma on mental health? Have your say in the comments section below.

Image: darcyadelaide / Flickr