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.”

11 thoughts on “Stigma

  1. Deb B. says:

    Great post! It is one of the things I feel like I get “wrong” all the time – people often say to me when they find out I have twins “I bet you have your hands full” or “it must be a blast at your house” and I find that as we are struggling through our terrible twos, my answer is usually a pretty blunt “well it is double trouble for sure” or “they are driving me crazy right now” – people look at me with horror! True horror!

    So I’ve decided to a) answer more demurely, b) tell people about your blog and c) be as open and forthcoming as I can be about therapy, anxiety, PPD, and even the need for health insurance reform, because I am determined to change the face of these issues and bring them out from under the rug!

  2. Katherine McCourt says:

    I 100% agree! When I first went to therapy I would park at the back and hide under a magazine in the waiting room. When I started to tell women I was going to therapy they all seemed all most envious. They wanted me to share what I had learned with them. So now I park at the front and don’t hide under a magazine. Just my openness about it has inspired a few women to seek therapy.

  3. Ninotchka says:

    LOVE this. I so relate to the sahm conundrum. And I also live in an area where (and I might just be projecting) therapy/struggling are taboo. Of course, I’ll talk about my issues with anyone. It just always surprises me how hush-hush everyone else is about it as if it’s a bad thing. Weird. I’ve always been kind of proud of therapy. heh

  4. Ann Dunnewold says:

    It’s not just me being honest about it, dear readers!! It’s you, being willing to open up to other women with comments like these, and carrying it into your day to day life. It’s like “the wave” done at sporting events–just pick this idea up and spread it wherever you go. And not demurely, Deb–we’ll make more progress if we shout it out. Love you, readers–thanks.

  5. Lauren says:

    Love this! I’ve been really working to allow myself the luxury of taking lunch and NOT doing laundry every day of the week. At first I felt guilty for not being super woman, but then I was relieved that life kept going (and no one other than my husband even knew the difference).

    BTW- My friends/family all know that I’m in therapy, and they love the tips and tricks I learn. They appreciate it when i give them permission to not be perfect.

  6. Vivienne McNeny says:

    Hey, I can send people to your show and blog just because I know about you. Why would everyone presume I go to therapy? I have a great group of friends who acknowledge that staying at home is a tough job; add children into the mix and it’s off the radar! We have our good days and our bad days but we still love the critters.

  7. US paratrooper says:

    Thank you so much for this blog. I am a husband of a woman who has PPD. We just had our third child in Jan. I left 5 days later for Haiti. I’m still here. My wife has worsened with the multiple extensions of duty here. She finally opened up and called someone. No I am on my way home to take care of her issues and my children. She doesn’t have a strong support group and I never thought she needed one until now. When I get back i will be sure to implement the iinformation put out here. I didn’t know too much about PPD…until now. I will continue to learn more about it and help my wife overcome this temporary illness. I just wanted to say thank you.

  8. Ann Dunnewold says:

    Thank you for your comments. I admire your efforts to support your wife through this situation that is tough on you both. At the risk of sounding like a commercial, my newest book has just hit the online shelves: Life Will Never Be The Same: The Real Mom’s Postpartum Survival Guide is now available on Amazon and other online sellers. You may also want to check out Postpartum Support International, for help in your area. All the best to you and your family.

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