As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s a good time to talk about what’s different for women and men in terms of mental health.
Across the course of their lives, one in three women experience an anxiety condition compared to one in five men. One in six women will experience depression compared to one in eight men.
Women also experience higher rates of eating disorders, and pregnancy and menopause can influence a woman’s mental health, too. Depression will affect one in ten women during pregnancy and one in six women in the year after their child’s birth.
The impacts of family violence are, of course, deep and long-lasting, rippling through the lives of women and those in their care for decades and possibly generations.
Women who have experienced physical or sexual violence are more likely to have depression and anxiety, misuse drugs and alcohol, have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide and have post-traumatic stress disorder.
While it is important to understand these differential statistics, this is not about men versus women. We can never lose our line of sight on the shocking statistic that of the eight Australians who take their lives on average every day, six are men.
But the clearer we are about varying the needs, the better we will be in meeting them.
I don’t think even our best medicos or health research scientists fully understand all the reasons behind this pattern of gender-based difference.
But intuitively, the fact that women still take on the lion’s share of caring duties in their households and communities seems likely to play a part.
Obviously caring for others, especially children, is the best experience in life for millions of Australian women but balancing paid and unpaid work can affect physical and mental health, independence and financial security.
In addition, I wonder about the toll taken by the unconscious bias that still shapes how women are viewed and treated in our societies – the increased likelihood of being talked over, overlooked for promotion or being made to feel out of place in environments that are still overwhelmingly male.
This creates another dimension for us to talk about, research and seek to change as we promote women’s equality and empowerment.
But that big picture shouldn’t distract us from right here and right now engaging in day to day practices to look after our mental health.
It sounds obvious, but that starts with physical health. What’s good for your body is good for your mind and that means eating regular balanced meals, exercising, limiting alcohol and getting enough sleep.
You will enhance your mental health when you have interests beyond your work and professional identity, establish boundaries between your work and home lives, and regularly connect with your social support networks. A few relaxation techniques can help too.
It’s also important you know how to recognise the symptoms of an emerging mental health issue. Everyone’s mental health varies during their life. It can even vary from one day to the next.Imagine it as a set of traffic lights.
When the lights are green, people tend to show resilience and high levels of wellbeing. This doesn’t mean they never experience any challenges. Rather, they draw on a range of coping mechanisms and supports to effectively manage any difficulties as they come along.
But people can easily move into the amber and experience trouble concentrating, increased aggression, poor sleep and an inability to find pleasure in the things they usually enjoy. All these can be signs that something is not right.
Left unaddressed, amber can turn to red and you can hit a crisis or have symptoms that have a major impact on your thoughts, feelings or behaviour.
It’s important not to ignore these signs. Ask for help – see a GP, talk to a trusted friend, get online and look at the resources at beyondblue.org.au.
Happy International Women’s Day. A day to remember that while women and men might still experience the world very differently and face separate challenges, reaching out for information and help is good for all of us.
Julia Gillard is Chair of the Board of Directors at beyondblue.