To Women on World Suicide Prevention Day

Gender, Emotional Expression and Prescription Drugs

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. In complete transparency, I didn’t know this annual event existed until this year. Perhaps my sudden awareness is a subliminal response to the series of pop culture tragedies that have taken course over the past nine months and been generously highlighted by the media.

Internet superstar, Logan Paul, kicked-off 2018 by vlogging a dead body hanging in Japan’s so-called “Suicide Forest.” Shortly after, 19-year-old gunman, Nikolas Cruz, open fired at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; killing seventeen students and staff members.

A new season of the highly controversial Netflix’s American teen-drama web series, 13 Reasons Why, revolving around a high school girl who commits suicide, was release in May. And around that same time a sequence of celebrated icons, Avicii, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, took their own lives.

More recently, influential pop-superstar, Demi Lovato, relapsed after six years of sobriety. Following, she suffered an overdose after using Oxycodone said to be tainted with fentanyl, ultimately hospitalizing her for weeks.

And just last week, Mac Miller, a pioneer of the modern-day music industry, died of an apparent overdose at the age of 26.

Despite all of these heartbreaks, the topic of mental illness still has a public stigma. Facts and figures aren’t communicated as consistently as information on other destructive epidemics, like HIV/AIDS and Obesity. Not to say the mental health crisis needs more exposure, just more education in the mainstream.

Recently, I’ve been specifically fascinated by the correlation between mental illness and women.

According to Mental Health America, women experience depression at roughly twice the rate of men, and mental illness in women is misdiagnosed approximately 40% of the time.

While processing these statistics, I couldn’t help but think bigger picture. What is being overlooked when it comes to gender and prevalence of psychiatric disorder?

Women learn from an early age that moods are a problem.

Women have been taught to apologize for crying and to suppress anger in order to get what they want and get ahead.

Why? Because the ideology of hysteria still permeates in our society today.

The Greeks, Romans, and physicians of the Middles Ages would diagnose “moody” women as weak, irrational, or guilty of sinning because they hadn’t yet procreated. Proposed treatments for these emotions ranged from herbs, to spells, to orgasms.

But even prior, the oldest known piece of medical literature, the ancient Egyptian Kahun Papyrus (dating back to 1900 B.C.), warned that women who were cranky, weepy, or glum were in distress because their uteruses were in an unnatural position. The best treatment? To expose these gloomy women to vulgar-smelling substances to make them so uncomfortable that their uteruses move back into the correct places.

And believe it or not, it was actually famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who deemed hysteria an exclusively female disease.

If we put aside any kind of feminist ideology (pro- or anti-) and look through an evolutionary lens: women are hard-wired to be intuitive to our environments and sensitive to children’s needs, meaning their emotions are radically flexible. Thus, women’s emotionality is a sign of health, not disease.

Although women are no long diagnosed “hysterical,” they are hard-pressed by society to be in control of their feelings; regardless of usual hormonal fluctuations, monthly cycles or fertility phases (including breast-feeding). Because in today’s world (especially in today’s professional world) calling a woman emotional is a classic strategy for cutting her off at the knees.

Then, women blame themselves for how bad they feel. Which delves into the idea of whether we are ill or are we treating emotions like a disease?

Whatever it may be, we crave the cure — and fear that love, success, happiness or whatever the ‘goal’ may be, will not be attainable until we’ve stabilized.

And you better believe that every commercial market plays on that fear, especially the pharmaceutical industry.

From birth control, to Adderall, to Xanax, to Prozac; women are being persuaded to medicate the emotions away.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, one in four American women now take some type of psychiatric medication, compared to one in seven American men.

Now I’m not a doctor, and of course there are circumstances where psychiatric medications are absolutely called for. Many people (men and women) live lives greatly improved thanks to prescription drugs. The problem here is that too many genuinely ill people still remain untreated, mostly due to socioeconomic factors… but that’s another conversation. My point is that more often than not, prescriptions are a response to peer pressure and consumerism… not a biological need.

It’s no secret that the encouragement of chemical assistance is becoming the new normal, as we are in the midst of a widespread opioid epidemic … an epidemic that didn’t just evolve out of thin air.

Women often don’t realize, that when we overmedicate, emotions become synthetic. Having constantly artificial prominent levels of serotonin or estrogen may be stable, but it’s not natural.

Studies have shown drugs can dull the obsession associated with romance and can numb the ability to care about others’ feelings, be creative, and even dream.

So maybe a simple step towards tackling this mental health crisis, is learning to honor how we innately feel. Maybe acknowledging and accepting our bodies complexities is a step toward wellness. Maybe if we stop labeling acute bouts of sadness as a symptom, and appreciate them as healthy, adaptive parts of biology — we open doors to enlightening and educational, non-stigmatized discussions surrounding the mental health crisis.