Mental health is a complicated issue. Mental illness affects different people in different ways. It’s difficult to diagnose, and it often goes undiagnosed for far too long. The way we view mental health as a society has a lot to do with the success of treatment for it, so it’s important to always keep the conversation going.
One aspect of mental health that is still somewhat ambiguous is how one’s gender affects the diagnosis, treatment and stigma surrounding mental health issues.
How Do Cultural Gender Norms Affect the Way We See Mental Health?
Whether we like it or not, culture dictates many of the expectations we have for boys and girls, men and women. We all have our own concepts of masculinity and femininity, and how those should be manifested.
In American culture, women are typically viewed as more emotional, sensitive and dependent. Men, on the other hand, are often told to act stronger, less vulnerable and less emotional. While there may be some truth behind these stereotypes, gender-based expectations for how people should behave can actually be harmful, especially when it comes to mental health.
A study published by Purdue and Northwestern Universities found that gender stereotypes affected the way people responded to others’ mental illnesses. Respondents read case summaries of mental illnesses whose symptoms were stereotypically associated with either women or men. Men are more likely to be stereotyped as violent, which is often linked to something like alcohol abuse. While women are more likely to be stereotyped as dependent, which is more closely linked to issues like depression.1
When respondents read a case study of a gender-typical disorder, such as a man with alcohol use disorder, they were less sympathetic and less inclined to help than when cases were not gender-typical. What this means is that when a person exhibits symptoms of a mental illness that are typical to their gender, people are more likely to blame the person who is suffering for their symptoms. When symptoms are not typical for their gender, people are more likely to attribute them to a genuine mental illness with a biological cause.1
Placing these types of expectations on the way people should act based on their gender can hinder their mental health and their ability and willingness to seek help.
Societal Norms and Their Effects on Mental Health Diagnosis
According to Psychology Today, men are taught by society not to share emotions or show weakness, which likely means that men are less likely to seek mental health care than women. One in four women will seek treatment for depression at some point in their lives, compared to only one in 10 men.2 This could be because women actually do suffer from depression more than men, but it’s highly likely that it’s at least partially due to men not seeking help when they need it.
Glennon Doyle, a bestselling author and blogger who has struggled with mental health disorders and addiction, says that society’s ideas of femininity and masculinity make it impossible for men and women to be fully human. She believes that women can be angry and fierce and strong, and men can be tender and vulnerable — and if we aren’t allowed to be these things, we will hide from one another.4
“We create spaces for our little boys, and we allow them to be soft. We don’t tell them that brave boys don’t cry. We don’t say, ‘Be a man,’” Doyle explains in her interview with the Recovery Unscripted podcast. “We teach them what being a man is, and being a man is being fully human and being tough and vulnerable.” It is only when we are able to be honest with ourselves that we can begin to break free and become more fully human.
Research has also consistently shown that doctors are more likely to diagnose women with mental illness than men. This could be due to several factors, including the possibility that men’s mental health symptoms may not fit the typical mold of a diagnosis — anger as a symptom of depression, for instance.2
However, doctors may diagnose women more often because they believe certain mental health issues are more common among women. Some research also suggests that medical professionals are more likely to label women’s physical symptoms, like pain, as emotional or mental, where they would take a man’s symptoms more seriously.2
Gender Differences in Mental Health
While gender stereotyping can have negative effects, there are important differences between men and women when it comes to mental health.
A study published by the American Psychological Association found that women are more likely than men to experience anxiety and depression, while men are more likely to be diagnosed with substance use and antisocial disorders. It also found that women are more likely to internalize emotions, which typically results in withdrawal, loneliness and depression, while men are more likely to externalize emotions, leading to aggressive, impulsive, coercive and noncompliant behavior.3
Does Gender-Specific Treatment Help?
Due to these differences, there are strong arguments for the merits of gender-specific treatment for mental health and substance use disorders. Whether culturally created or not, there are differences in the way men and women experience mental health, and specific issues women and men face can benefit from targeted, individualized care.
Michael’s House offers separate men’s and women’s programs with experienced, caring staff dedicated to helping patients reach their recovery goals in a safe, positive environment. The women’s program is focused on building self-esteem and resiliency, and the men’s program provides patients with strength-based skill sets that allow them to thrive in recovery.
If you’d like to find out more about the specialized care Michael’s House offers for men and women with co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders, call us any time to speak with an admissions coordinator who can answer all your questions.
By Wesley Gallagher, Contributing Writer
- Wirth, James H. and Galen V. Bodenhausen. The Role of Gender in Mental-Illness Stigma. Association for Psychological Science, 2009.
- Young, Joel L. “Women and Mental Illness.” Psychology Today, April 22, 2015.
- Eaton, Nicholas R. “Study Finds Sex Differences in Mental Illness.” American Psychological Association, August 18, 2011.
- “Becoming a Love Warrior with Glennon Doyle.” Recovery Unscripted, June 28, 2017.