Understanding Mental Health Over a Woman’s Lifetime
Many mental health conditions impact women differently at different stages in life: It’s about time we talked about it
June 13, 2021
One of the most pressing issues in health care today is mental health. Unique issues related to the mental health of girls and women are of particular importance.
Understanding women’s mental health is a twofold approach. There are mental health issues that only appear in women. There are also mental health issues in all genders that impact women differently.
A better lens to examine women’s mental health is by looking at it across their life spans.
This article is focused on the biological differences between men and women and the variances in mental health between the two. We understand that not all gender identity fits into one of these two categories. This article does not exclude the validity of those who identify with other genders.
Keep Reading to Learn
- Why—and how—mental health can impact women differently than men
- How mental health conditions change—and which appear—over the life span of a woman
- The causes, effects, and treatment of women-only mental health conditions
The Role of Sex and Gender in Mental Health
Sex and gender differences play a major role in mental health and mental illness. Though there are biological differences between men and women that may impact mental health, there are also societal differences between men and women that can influence the development of mental health issues.
Often gender determines degrees of power when it comes to men and women. There are still societal barriers that women face when it comes to social and economic determinants of mental health, such as susceptibility and exposure to mental health risks as well as social considerations.
Research has shown significant differences between genders when it comes to the development of common mental health disorders, with some disorders being more prevalent in women.
It is important to keep all these differences in mind when taking a closer look at how mental health issues may appear in women throughout their lives. The earlier mental health issues are detected, the faster they can be addressed.
Mental Health in Early Childhood: ADHD
One of the most common mental health issues that children are diagnosed with is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
ADHD is noted for symptoms related to attention dysregulation, impulsivity, and sometimes hyperactivity. Challenges in executive functioning are a core feature of ADHD. These challenges include problems with time management, organization, decision-making, working memory, planning, emotional regulation, and prioritization.
According to information published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), boys are more than twice as likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD as girls.
This diagnosis rate isn’t necessarily because boys are more likely to develop ADHD than girls. This stark contrast is more likely because ADHD symptoms may present differently in girls, making it harder to identify this disorder.
Research has shown that boys with ADHD tend to have symptoms that are easier for others to see. For example, they tend to run around more often, behave more inappropriately, act physically aggressive, and be more outgoing.
Girls, on the other hand, tend to have symptoms that are harder to see. For example, they may have trouble paying attention in some situations or have low self-esteem. Furthermore, because girls are more verbally than physically aggressive when compared to boys, it is often harder to identify girls who have ADHD.
Because girls often display fewer behavioral problems compared to boys with ADHD, it can be harder to notice their symptoms. As a result, the difficulties that girls struggle with when it comes to ADHD are often overlooked. This can lead to severe problems down the road.
Though girls often exhibit different symptoms when it comes to ADHD, research has shown that undiagnosed or misdiagnosed ADHD can harm a girl’s self-esteem. Girls with ADHD often don’t externalize their frustrations and usually focus on work. As a result, this can increase their risk of developing eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.
Girls with ADHD often overcompensate. They may adopt a stance of perfectionism. This is due in part to shame around their executive function challenges. Often this leads to an under-identification and sometimes a dismissal of an ADHD diagnosis based simply on the outcome (e.g., good grades).
Furthermore, girls who have undiagnosed ADHD are prone to developing problems in social settings, at school, and even in their personal relationships.
Girls often develop symptoms that are not closely associated with ADHD because many of the symptoms of ADHD that people think about are more common in boys. Some of the most common symptoms of ADHD in girls include:
- Appearing more withdrawn
- Struggling with low confidence and low self-esteem
- Exhibiting higher degrees of anxiety
- Difficulty keeping up with their schoolwork and peers in the classroom
- Difficulty paying attention during class
- Exhibiting verbal aggressiveness and engaging in teasing or name-calling
- Appearing not to listen from time to time
ADHD rarely travels alone. Having ADHD can predispose girls to addictive or impulsive behavior, including bulimia, binge eating disorder, substance misuse, and self-harm. People with ADHD are more likely to also struggle with anxiety or depression.
Of kids with ADHD, 50-60% have a learning disability or difference, such as dyslexia or a non-verbal learning disability. It is very important to treat the ADHD, since not doing so will undermine the treatment of any co-occurring condition.
The treatment of ADHD in boys and girls is relatively similar. Instead of focusing on differences between boys and girls when it comes to treatment, doctors tend to consider individual differences because everyone responds differently to therapy and medication.
Usually, the best treatment for ADHD is a combination of therapy and medication. Not every symptom of ADHD is controllable with medication alone.
It is critical to focus on identifying children—particularly, girls—with ADHD as quickly as possible. Like with many mental health conditions, the faster these symptoms are recognized, the faster they can be treated.
Living With Mental Illness
As a participant in McLean’s Deconstructing Stigma campaign, Shellye bravely tells her story of childhood mental health struggles and how she manages her mental health as an adult.