Research shows that about one in five women develop depression at some point in their lives. In fact, women are nearly twice as likely as men to experience a major depressive disorder. What, then, are the factors that make women more predisposed to depression than men?
While hormonal changes are traditionally accused of causing dramatic changes in mood – most women are all too familiar with the rollercoaster emotions that accompany that time of the month – these alone are not solely responsible for the higher incidence of depression in women, say experts at the Mayo Clinic, an international non-profit provider of medical care, research and education. Other biological factors, as well as inherited traits and life experiences are also involved, they maintain.
For starters, girls, it would seem, are more likely to develop earlier onset depression than boys. This is partly attributable to the fact that they typically reach puberty younger than their male contemporaries do. While the hormonal changes that accompany puberty do not necessarily cause adolescent depression, they certainly don’t help in allaying it, especially when one considers the other issues that often occur concomitantly with its start: factors such as emerging sexuality and identity and conformity issues, conflict with parents and increasing pressure to perform in school, at sports and in other areas of life.
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), on the other hand, is a type of depression that affects a small number of females and can have an extremely disabling effect on all areas of one’s life. More than simply the ‘normal’, relatively short-lived symptoms of PMS (headaches, anxiety, irritability, etc), PMDD, which is thought to be attributable to a disruption in the functioning of brain chemicals caused by cyclical changes in oestrogen, progesterone and other hormones, is a severe condition for which medical treatment is required.
Pregnancy, too, is a time of not only dramatic hormonal fluctuations, but also lifestyle changes, such as work challenges, relationship difficulties and a lack of social support – all of which can cause depression in women. Add to this pregnancy complications such as infertility or miscarriage, plus the fact that women are advised to stop the use of antidepressant medications in order to protect the health of their unborn babies, and it’s not hard to see why many women fall prey to depression at this time of their lives. Not just the ‘baby blues’, postpartum depression, which occurs in about 10 to 25 percent of new mothers and is believed to be associated with major hormonal fluctuations that influence mood as well as predisposition to mood and anxiety disorders, is a serious medical condition requiring prompt treatment.
The risk of depression also rises significantly during the transition to menopause – a period called perimenopause – as well as during menopause itself. Again, erratic hormones due to the significant lowering of oestrogen levels are to blame at this emotionally-charged time, when women suffering from acute sleep disruptions or who have a history of depression are more susceptible. A hysterectomy with the removal of the ovaries can also lead to an abrupt onset of menopause, with severe symptoms, including depression.
But, say the experts, the higher rate of depressive episodes amongst females isn’t due to biological factors alone. Life situations and cultural stressors play a role too. Studies show that women are much more likely than men to live in poverty – a social circumstance, according to research, that contributes notably to one’s vulnerability to depression. Minority women or those living in a patriarchal culture may also have the added stress of racial or sexual discrimination, additional stressors that can contribute to feelings of anxiety and lowered self-esteem, all of which increase the risk of depression. Statistics also show that women are more likely to experience sexual and physical abuse than men and, according to research, people who were emotionally, physically or sexually abused as children or adults are more likely to experience depression at some point in their lives than those who aren’t abused.
Remember, depression is both a common and treatable condition. If you think you are depressed, don’t hesitate to seek help. Consider turning first to your primary-care provider – your family doctor, gynecologist or community counsellor – who can then refer you to a mental health provider who specialises in diagnosing and treating mental illness, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. Alternatively, contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), a SACAP fieldwork placement centre, for assistance.
Interested in learning more about counselling? SACAP offers a range of courses, including part-time and full-time as well as distance learning options. For more information, enquire now.