The Pharmaceutical Gender Gap

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In an article written for Vice, Taylor Prewitt, a contributor to several online magazines, addresses the higher chance women have, and always have had, to be prescribed drugs as treatment for mental illness. Prewitt references Scientific American and the Office on Women’s Health for statistics to support her claim, specifically that women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression, and those who are diagnosed are twice as likely to be given prescription drugs than men who are diagnosed.

She also notes that women tend to suffer more side effects from these drugs than men, and, according to Harvard Health Publications, addiction to drugs is more difficult for women to overcome. Why, then, has there been such a significant disparity in the prescription rates of these drugs between men and women?

Prewitt claims, with no cited source, that it is true that men experience depression and anxiety less than women. Then, with little-to-no explanation or discussion of the statement, she quotes Dr. Edward Shorter, an author and psychiatrist, as saying that women occupy the “depressed role” which “increases the difference between the sexes.” It is not made evidently clear how Shorter believes women came to hold the “depressed role”, nor how holding said position would serve to differentiate between sexes more distinctly.

Prewitt, as she continues, simply states that the conception of women as the more depressed gender is not a recent development. In a series of descriptions of 19th century women heavily medicated for “nervousness”, anxiety, and other “female conditions” with the highly-addictive morphine, the opiate laudanum, nitrous oxide, cocaine, etc. (including, she says, Mary Todd Lincoln), Prewitt tiptoes around the now-outdated concept of hysteria and its place as a catchall for all those symptoms which she has mentioned. Where Prewitt’s discussion becomes more compelling is when she moves past the heyday of the hysteria diagnosis and begins to dwell on the treatment of women for what author Betty Friedan called the “problem that has no name” which plagued housewives in the mid-20th century.

Regarding this period, Prewitt describes a dichotomy of thought surrounding women; that is, that women should be prescribed stimulants or sedatives as necessary to manage their malaise (which Prewitt calls “trendy anxiety”), but also that women who suffered from drug addiction were failing to be proper mothers and housewives. As drugs such as Valium became more ubiquitous, they began to be prescribed seemingly en masse to struggling housewives, at twice the rate of their prescription to men. Men, Prewitt says, were prevented from taking these drugs by a “national masculinity crisis” which caused the medication to be labeled “women’s drugs” — a problem since, of course, women’s occupation of the “depressed role” left them to be considered fundamentally “mentally weak”.

Prewitt ends by speaking of the modern day. Women are still considered the more emotional of the genders, and continue to be overly medicated (a statistic from the New York Times cited by Prewitt states that one in four American women between the ages of 40 and 50 are prescribed SSRIs!). Overall, Prewitt describes a several-centuries-long history of the over-medication of women, though fails to mention (other than in the title) the 19th century disease which subsumes all the mentioned symptoms: hysteria. A discussion of the history and diagnosis of hysteria and other “women’s diseases” like the Greek hysterike pnix could possibly have helped to explain Dr. Shorter’s idea of a “depressed role” which highlights the subordination of one gender. This omission serves to draw historical weight away from Prewitt’s tour through the centuries and leaves the reader without historical explanation for the events she describes.