A mom was lamenting the difficulty women have relating honestly to each other, which I’d addressed in this week’s The Sanity Hour and last week’s post. Women in her circle simply DO NOT admit that life with kids is hard. Living in an extremely affluent community, she shared that women are heavily invested in “I’m so lucky to get to stay home with my kids.” There’s a strong taboo in her neighborhood about acknowledging any real life stress because, given our culture’s habitual black and white thinking, if a mom ‘is blessed’ to stay home with her kids, she has to love every hectic minute. I’d offered one of my favorite mantras, “love the kid, hate the job” and suggested she start a more realistic conversation by pointing friends toward my show and blog posts, where I’m SLIGHTLY invested in ‘letting it all hang out’ (to revive a phrase from the 70s.) She exclaimed “I couldn’t do that–then they’d know that I go to therapy!”
Really? Have we really not come any further than this stale stigma about mental health? Rates of depression and anxiety in women are twice the rates seen in men. Before puberty, boys with mood issues outnumber girls. Between 9 and 13 years, the rates of anxiety and depression in girls shoot up to twice those of boys. And stay there until age 55, when rates even out between the sexes. With statistics like these, women are the majority consumers of mental health services.
The origin of the differences is a perennial question. One popular explanation is that women simply admit to mood issues more often, while men are less likely to seek treatment. If women are guarded with close friends because of the stigma, it’s not a stretch to imagine that this is true.
However, serotonin synthesis is 48% lower in women versus men. Serotonin is one of the main neurotransmitters that affect mood. This fact, along with the stats about male vs. female rates across the life span, suggests that women are biochemically predisposed to depression and anxiety. Women can’t will themselves to make more serotonin any more than individuals with diabetes can will themselves to make more insulin.
Brain chemistry is not the only culprit. Powerful expectations for women to do all and be all mean women are running on empty. Given my demanding work, listening to problems day after day, I’ve devoted myself to the routine of a real lunch break. Out of the office, with a friend or a good book, ideally with a beautiful view, every day. No working through lunch to finish paperwork. I need the thirty minute break that labor laws in this country mandate. Who lunches around me at a leisurely pace? Men–a preponderance of men. Women, weighed down with the second shift of childcare and housework, must be eating at their desks or on the run with errands.
Who says women are the weaker sex? Is it a flaw to need support and inspiration from mental health professionals? Enough of the stigma! Our biochemistry predisposes us. Our cultural expectations drive us to forgo restorative activities in favor of more work. It’s a foolproof combination for feeling overwhelmed.
Invest in yourself. Breaks for basic bodily renewal like sleep, food, or exercise; connections with other women, and learning to battle your counterproductive brain chatter through therapy are powerful tools for survival. Be a model for other women by embracing the old adage “we don’t have to be sick to get better.”