(Originally published on ATAI.life October 26, 2019)
Gender greatly influences the power that males and females have over socio-economic factors that influence their mental health, social position and status, treatment in society, and sensitivity and exposure to certain mental health risks.
A few of the risk factors for common mental disorders that disproportionately affect women include low income, high income inequality, low or subordinate social status, assumed responsibility for the care of others, and gender-based violence. One example of this is the high prevelance of sexual violence against women and corresponding rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — rates that mark women as the largest single group affected by this disorder.
For men, risk factors for common mental health issues include economic marginality, adverse working conditions, and gendered coping responses to stress. For example, when dealing with high levels of stress, men are more likely to smoke cigarettes (26% versus 22%) and twice as likely to consume five or more alcoholic drinks in a single day when compared to women.
One study that utilized data from the United Nations’ World Bank databases and Global Burden of Disease database aimed to demonstrate the correlation between social inequality and gender disparities in mental health. The research was based on global data across 122 countries. Results showed that:
- For all seven of the major regions reviewed — East Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, North America, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa — the mean number of depressive disorders for females was approximately twice that of males.
- When observing situations with high rates of wealth inequality, men actually suffered more than women. A high level of inequality was significantly associated with high DDRP for males, whereas it was not for females. One theory around this is that males are more mentally sensitive to wealth inequality because of the stress and social anxiety tied to it — i.e., stereotypical social roles may make men feel as if they need to excel in the workplace, producing greater levels of stress. Another theory is in regard to genetic makeup. From a biological point of view, the presence of the Y chromosome and different hormones may also contribute to the brain’s reaction to wealth inequality.
- GDP showed a direct association with depressive disorder rates between females and males (RRFM), after adjusting for other socio-economic factors and regional effects — a higher GDP correlated with slightly higher RRFM, for both males and females alike. This suggests that higher overall wealth level for a country is not necessarily related to decreasing gender disparity in depressive disorders, rather, improving the overall level of wealth may be a more efficient way to reduce the prevalence of these issues in a specific population.
These results showcase that both gender inequality and wealth inequality are associated with differential impacts on mental health for both genders. From assumed societal roles to differences in brain structures to a heightened risk for gender-based violence, the correlations are many, but the underlying message remains the same: the more unequal the society, the more likely its population as a whole will suffer from mental illness.