There’s a nuanced relationship between physical and mental health, and women deserve care that spans both.
Depression and anxiety are two extremely common conditions worldwide. Surprised? In the U.S. alone, research shows that anxiety affects one third of adults, and depression is the leading cause of disability.
The answer is multilayered, but here we’ll explore one crucial factor: the physical body’s impact on mental health.
Women’s bodies are complex, with a whole set of special organs and hormones for childbirth. Whether or not a woman decides to have a child, that reproductive system has a huge impact on mental health, through physical conditions that disproportionately affect women.
This includes things we traditionally associate with the women’s health category, like the experience of giving birth, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and its more severe relative, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). It also includes so many other effects of that complex, under-studied reproductive system. Infections, higher pain levels, chronic conditions like migraines, hormonal mood disorders, and psychological effects of the expectations around accessing contraception or getting pregnant (when you should, and shouldn’t, and what our systems say that means about your worth).
Pain impacts mental health
It’s long been reported that women experience more severe levels of pain than men. In the U.S., 38% of women have one or more chronic diseases compared with only 30% of men. For one example, 85% of chronic migraine sufferers are women. These headaches can often trigger a spiral of negative thoughts and emotional symptoms.
But due to historic and widespread bias in medical offices, women’s pain isn’t treated as quickly or aggressively as men’s, and they’re more frequently told their pain is “emotional” or that they’re overreacting. Ironically, untreated chronic pain actually leads to depression and other emotional disorders. The link between chronic pain and depression has been confirmed in numerous studies.
Hormones impact mental health
About 20% of menstruating women suffer from premenstrual syndrome, or PMS. Most of us recognize the physical symptoms (cramps, sore boobs) but these hormonal shifts also cause mood disturbances. Up to 8% of menstruating women experience debilitating mood changes, called PMDD. Instead of receiving proper care and treatment for their anxious or depressive symptoms, many women suffering from PMDD are either undiagnosed (told they’re just hormonal and shouldn’t get so worked up) or incorrectly overdiagnosed with bipolar disorder.
And then we have perhaps the most critical example of the intimate relationship between traditional women’s health and mental health: perinatal depression.
It shocks some people to learn that almost every new mother — about 85% — will experience some postpartum blues with intense mood swings, anxiety, and insomnia. But as many as one in five new moms deal with the more serious symptoms of perinatal depression. There are more than 3 million cases reported in the U.S. every year, and women who develop perinatal depression are at greater risk of developing major depression later in life.
The good news is that perinatal depression (like all the conditions mentioned here) is highly treatable. Several studies demonstrate depressive symptoms responding to a variety of treatment plans.
This is why it’s so important that we break down the stigma of mental illness and start to integrate immediate, proactive mental health treatment into women’s care. Mental health screenings and treatments should be accessible, table stakes for women everywhere. When we think about managing “women’s health,” we need to be managing mental health as well. In the long term, it will keep us all healthier and happier.
Find out more about how we’re treating anxiety and depression.