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More than one in five women in America experienced a mental health issue last year that affected their social, emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Studies show mental health disorders affect women differently than men. Women have higher rates of anxiety and depression while men have more issues with alcohol or drug abuse.
A women’s health expert at Providence takes a look at women’s mental health and offers tips on giving yourself the gift of mental wellness this holiday season.
It’s all too easy to underestimate the impact mental wellness has on our overall health. But the truth is, mental health plays a vital role in our wellbeing. It affects how we feel, act, think and navigate life’s challenges. Good mental health is a crucial component of a full, rich life.
Mental health includes your social, emotional and psychological wellbeing. And although depression, anxiety and stress can be constant companions for people of every age, race, sex and gender, research shows they tend to affect women differently than men.
Studies show women experience higher rates of depression, anxiety and panic disorders than men. Conversely, men showed higher rates of antisocial personality disorder and drug or alcohol dependence.
“Many women ignore issues with their mental health because they’re embarrassed or afraid to show what they perceive as weakness. But mental health problems are medical conditions, not defects of character. It takes true strength to reach out for help,” says Melanie Santos, M.D., FACOG, FPMRS.
Dr. Santos is the medical director of pelvic health for St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California. She shares her insights on women’s mental health and outlines ways women can give themselves the gift of mental wellness this holiday season.
Mental health matters
“It’s a common misconception that only people with mental illness need to pay attention to their mental health,” says Dr. Santos. “But good mental health is essential for everyone.”
Mental health and physical health are intertwined. For example, if left untreated, depression raises the risk of developing several serious health conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes. Similarly, living with a chronic physical illness can also affect your mental health and increase anxiety, depression and social isolation.
Your mental health needs change as your life changes. Problems can occur when the demands of your life exceed your ability to cope. Other factors may contribute to mental health challenges, including:
- Adverse life experiences such as child abuse, witnessing violence or sexual assault
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Chemical imbalances in the brain or other biological factors
- Ongoing medical illness or injury
- Social isolation and loneliness
Recognize the warning signs
More than one in five women in the United States experienced a mental health issue last year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health.
Some mental disorders are prompted by hormonal changes, including premenstrual dysphoric disorder, perinatal depression and menopause-related depression. Others, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, affect men and women similarly.
“Although men and women can develop many of the same mental issues, they may often experience different symptoms,” says Dr. Santos.
Common red flags for women include:
- Alcohol and/or drug abuse
- Changes in sleeping habits, including sleeping too much or insomnia
- Dramatic changes in eating habits, appetite or weight
- Excessive fatigue and decreased energy
- Grouchiness and irritability
- Mood swings with extreme highs and lows
- Ongoing feelings of hopelessness and sadness
- Pain, digestive problems and other health issues with no apparent cause
- Loss of interest in things that typically bring you joy
- Social withdrawal and self-isolation
- Thoughts of suicide or self-harm
“Each woman’s situation is unique,” says Dr. Santos. “All women do not experience the same symptoms. Some may have only a few mental health hiccups. Others may require medication, talk therapy or a combination of the two. It can take trial and error to determine what works best, but even the most severe mental health issues can be treated.”
Americans are five times more likely to experience higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression during the holiday season than at other times of the year, according to a nationwide poll by the American Psychiatric Association. The poll found that moms tend to worry more about affording holiday gifts than dads. They are also more likely to see their stress levels go up.
“The holiday season isn’t always a happy time. Social media can make it seem like everyone but you is living a fabulous life. Balancing your budget and bank account can feel like a game of tug-of-war. And all the added commitments and responsibilities that accompany this time of year can put your stress level over the top,” says Dr. Santos. “Give yourself permission to say ‘no’ to the things that don’t bring value to your life.”
Give yourself the gift of mental wellness
“Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s essential to a healthy, balanced life,” says Dr. Santos. “Remember, to be able to take care of others, you must first take care of yourself.”
These tips can help get you started.
“People are social beings. We need others to survive,” says Dr. Santos. “Maintaining close ties to your friends, family and community enriches your life and may help you live longer. And trying something new can often improve your outlook. Sign up for a class, join a group that interests you or just call a friend. You won’t regret it.”
Maintaining a positive outlook improves your mood, boosts your health and could help lengthen your life.
“Being optimistic doesn’t mean you ignore the disappointments and struggles of your life. And it won’t make your life perfect,” says Dr. Santos. “But a positive attitude can make it easier to handle the inevitable ups and downs without damage to your mental health.”
Help yourself by helping others
It goes without saying that acts of generosity and service help others. But they help the giver as well. People who help other people have less depression, less pain and less stress.
“Helping others doesn’t always have to include a grand gesture or momentous occasion,” says Dr. Santos. “The gift of a smile or a simple act of kindness could make a difference in someone’s day. It will truly make a difference in yours.”
Find a doctor
If you are looking for a mental health provider, you can search for one who’s right for you in our provider directory.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.
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