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Depression in Women
Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT: Thu, Oct 21st 2010
Last year, a study reported that despite the improvement in women's lives, their happiness relative to men has declined since the '70s, when the reverse was true. This held true across racial and socio-economic lines in several industrialized countries. Women's happiness also declines with age. In contrast, men' happiness has increased and increases with age.
Some attribute this change to the demands of work and motherhood, but as discussed in my last post, working women and working mothers are happier. Research shows that work outside the home provides stimulation and another identity that protects against depression.
Another theory suggests that the women's movement raised women's expectations, and reality has failed to deliver. Today, many more women are college-educated and seek professions previously reserved for men, but then hit the glass ceiling. Moreover, old cultural beliefs that undermine women's self-esteem haven't changed very much. Women are more highly educated now and jobs may have opened up, but most women lack the instrumental qualities of self-efficacy, assertiveness, and autonomy that lead to self-esteem and professional success. It's not surprising that independent and assertive women are less depressed. Some women incorrectly believe that being assertive and autonomous will jeopardize their relationships, a priority for women. Yet, women who suppress their anger are more subject to depression.
I believe that current culture contributes to our unhappiness. A recent University of Michigan study found that college students are about 40 percent less empathic than were coeds 20-30 years ago. Social networking, new technologies and speed, though affording many benefits, have also decreased the amount of time people spend with each other-dancing, socializing, and even watching television together. More time online means less time with others, in nature, or pursuing crafts and hobbies. Innovations and gadgets that feed men starve the feminine. Picture Aphrodite online!
Not surprisingly, women are twice as likely as men to experience depression. After heart disease, depression is the most debilitating illness for women, while it's tenth for men. The signs of depression are feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and/or guilt, crying, loss of interest in usual activities, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, social withdrawal, and changes in sleep, weight, or appetite. Ten to 25% of women will experience major depression in their lifetime. Each depressive episode makes another more likely. Rather than building resilience, we become more vulnerable and sensitive. Depression may be acute, lasting several weeks, or it may be less severe but chronic, lasting years, called dysthymia. Risks for depression among women include the following:
1. Passive, dependent, and pessimistic personality traits.
2. Sexual or physical abuse.
3. Having several, young children.
5. Inability to have children that they want.
This gender difference with males first appears at puberty, arguably due to hormonal changes. But Harvard professor Ronald Kessler attributes the shift to girls' lower self-esteem, described in my earlier blog on "Self-Criticism-Self-Esteem's Saboteur."
Another difference from men is that more women live in poverty and suffer greater discrimination and abuse. Those physically or sexually abused account for half of depressed women. Additionally, our brains are different from men's. We synthesize 52% less of mood-elevating serotonin, and our estrogen increases the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone. Hard-wired for emotional and empathic responses, we are more sensitive to loss of attachment and problems at home and with children. A significant loss, such as divorce, doubles a woman's risk of depression. Whereas men distract themselves to cope with loss and pain, the fact that we have better recall than they do, and in more vivid detail, contributes to our greater rumination of painful events. Greater rumination leads to greater depression. If women coped like men, the incidence of depression between genders would be the same.
Women are much more likely to be diagnosed and misdiagnosed with depression by male clinicians, and they are over-prescribed medication-82% more than men are given anti-depressants.
If you are or have been depressed in the past, develop a strong support system, which can protects against depression and helps you recover from it. It's important to develop good coping strategies and beliefs to deal with stress and negative life events. Becoming more autonomous and assertive leads to greater happiness and empowerment, while protecting against depression. Therapy can assist in all of these areas; with treatment, 80% of people improve. Depression is an illness affecting brain chemistry. Self-blame is typical with depression, so don't let guilt or shame stop you from getting help needed to recover, as you would for any physical illness.