Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in the question of gender differences. But until now no one has investigated the scientific evidence concerning the key issue of the psychological health of men and women. In the first systematic investigation of national mental health surveys, Professor Daniel Freeman of the University of Oxford reveals that mental health problems are more common in women than in men. In a new book entitled The Stressed Sex, published today (23 May) by Oxford University Press, it is shown that in any given year women experience 20-40% higher overall rates of psychological disorder than men.
Professor Freeman commented: “Traditionally it has always been said that men and women have the same rate of mental health problems. But the evidence shows that this is simply not the case. Women have higher rates of the most common psychological problems such as depression, panic disorder, phobias, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders. Men have higher rates of alcohol, drug, and anger problems. But women’s higher rates of emotional problems are not balanced out by men’s higher rates of alcohol and drug problems. Overall, in the current environment women are bearing the brunt of mental health problems.’
“But let’s be clear,” Professor Freeman continued, “even for problems that are more common in women – such as anxiety and depression – they also afflict very significant numbers of men. So it would be wrong to categorise mental health troubles as essentially a female problem. Rates of mental health problems are too high in both genders.”
Professor Freeman acknowledges that the findings presented in The Stressed Sex are bound to be controversial. He argues, however, that it’s an issue that can’t be ignored.
“Psychological problems account for almost half of all ill-health among the under 65s, with perhaps as many as nine million adults in the UK suffering from a disorder. Given the extent of the burden on society and individuals alike, understanding what causes mental health problems, and thus being better placed to prevent and treat it, is vitally important. But our ability to do that is going to be hampered if we assume that gender isn’t significant. In fact, it may often be a crucial contributory factor.”
Why are women more vulnerable to mental health problems than men? Professor Freeman cautions: “This is an under-researched area. For most conditions we have too little evidence for why men and women are affected differently. We know that women are more likely to report psychological problems than men but that this alone does not explain the overall gender differences.”
The research reviewed in The Stressed Sex highlights the link between mental health problems and stress caused by difficult life events and social roles. Professor Freeman argues: “The biggest discrepancies occur in conditions for which we know the environment, rather than genes, makes the greatest causal contribution. It’s certainly plausible that women experience higher levels of stress because of the demands of their social role. Increasingly, women are expected to function as carer, homemaker, and breadwinner – all while being perfectly shaped and impeccably dressed.
“Given that domestic work is undervalued, and considering that women tend to be paid less, find it harder to advance in a career, have to juggle multiple roles, and are bombarded with images of apparent female “perfection”, it would be surprising if there weren’t some emotional and psychological cost.”
“These are the kind of pressures that can leave women feeling as if they’ve somehow failed; as if they don’t have what it takes to be successful; as if they’ve been left behind. And those kinds of feelings can lead to psychological problems like anxiety and depression.”
The population seems to possess a healthy appetite for books on gender difference: think Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus, The Essential Difference, Delusions of Gender, and so on. But when it comes to mental health issues, a curious silence has prevailed. Perhaps the topic has become taboo. Yet Professor Freeman argues that “Men and women are very much from the same planet but they may be breathing air of different qualities. If we ignore the potentially higher rates of psychological problems in women, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to change the situation for the better.”
The Stressed Sex: Uncovering the Truth about Men, Women, and Mental Health is written by Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman. It is published on the 23 May 2013 in hardback at £16.99.