Looking Into the Future of Women’s Mental Health Care
Over 20% of women in the United States have experienced a mental health condition within the past year. Because March is Women’s History Month, we thought now would be a good time to examine the direction mental health care is headed in and how that will impact women and girls as they continue seeking mental health care and treatment.
An Evolving Landscape
The prevalence of any mental illness among female adults in this country is over one-quarter, which places women at higher risk than their male counterparts.
But mental health concerns affect women differently than men. For a long time, especially at their inception, the fields of psychology and medical care saw women as anomalies, variations on the male default. This made it easy for diagnoses like “female hysteria” to become common without much consideration given to women’s internal experiences.
There are a lot of ways women and people assigned female at birth are disproportionately put at risk of developing mental illnesses. While many of these differences are often misattributed to biological or hormonal differences between the sexes (which can certainly factor into mental health and symptoms), there are plenty of non-biological factors that put women at higher risk:
Women are more likely to be caretakers, which is a role associated with stress, anxiety, and isolation.
Women and girls of all ages are more likely to live in poverty than men are. This can lead to stress from unmet financial needs, concerns about personal safety, and social isolation. It can also cause instability in other areas of life like housing, medical care, etc. – all of which can lead to or exacerbate mental health conditions.
Abuse and Gender-Based Violence
Women’s fear of violence is a fixture in our culture. It’s so pervasive that true crime podcasts and TV shows narrating gendered violence have become comfort media for many women.
Abuse and gender-based violence can have long-term effects on mental health, such as:
- Social isolation
Social pressure, body shaming, and other factors that disproportionately affect women can lead to eating disorders and other maladaptive behaviors.
Differences in How Symptoms Manifest
Women and people assigned female at birth may experience the same disorders differently than cisgender men (who have historically been treated as the mental health and medical default). Certain symptoms may be more or less common in women than men, leading to complications when women seek an accurate diagnosis, try to identify their symptoms, and find effective treatment that meets their needs.
While research and public discourse are contributing greatly to solving this problem, this issue remains a reality for many women seeking care.
When women and girls face negative or difficult feelings, they’re encouraged to internalize those feelings. There’s a lot of societal pressure for women to look inward to solve their problems, which can create or worsen mental health problems.
In contrast, men tend to channel uncomfortable feelings outwardly. There are entire diagnoses, such as ADHD, that often rely on this kind of disruptive outward expression of distress for traditional identification. When girls/women exhibit the same symptoms, they tend to show them differently (such as inattention vs. hyperactivity). And when they do channel their feelings outwardly, they’re often reprimanded instead of directed toward resources.
We’re seeing these problems shifting in real-time as later-in-life diagnoses, most notably ADHD and autism, skyrocket among women and people assigned female at birth. The role that social media (especially TikTok) and the internet have had in this shift can’t be overstated.
Though women’s symptoms have often been overlooked, misunderstood, or undertreated, they also tend to have better social networks than men do. They’re more likely to have an easier time confiding in friends and family and are more likely to seek treatment when they realize there’s a problem.
As mental health care moves beyond a straightforward medical model and takes on a more holistic approach, this is likely to be a positive change for women’s mental health in the future. Here’s what we can expect if the current trajectory continues:
Expanded Understanding Among Clinicians
As research and discourse moves forward, medical and mental healthcare providers will develop a better understanding of what mental illnesses and symptoms can look like in their patients of all genders, shifting away from the assumption that all patients present symptoms and respond to treatments the way a cisgender man would.
Individualized Treatments Going Mainstream
More and more providers are making bloodwork and lab panels routine procedures as part of their new patient intakes. This helps providers get a better sense of their patients’ unique physiology, rather than relying on pharmaceuticals and vague, one-size-fits-all lifestyle recommendations like “eat better” or “get more exercise.”
Improved Detection for Underlying Conditions
The normalization of more holistic, tailored treatment approaches will also provide a chance to identify and treat underlying conditions that disproportionately affect women, have often been overlooked or misdiagnosed, and may be causing or exacerbating female patients’ symptoms.
The future of women’s mental health care is brighter than ever. Social media, emerging research, and expanding access to holistic treatment methods are all rapidly helping women find community, resources, and support for their mental health needs.