Feminism | Posted by Erin C. on 05/18/2015
Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes About Mental Illness
Close your eyes for a second and think about depression. What comes to mind? Chances are, it’s a girl (maybe with her head in her hands). Perhaps she appears as a dark silhouette, curled up in the fetal position? She probably looks sad.
That image hardly matched my experience. In my life that somebody was just an ordinary boy. He would make his friends roll on the floor with laughter every day. He never failed to put a smile on my face.
But one September, he went away to England to study abroad. Unable to find support and happiness there, he died by suicide. Until then, I had no idea one of my closest friends was clinically depressed.
Everyone occasionally gets “the blues,” but when the tears don’t stop and the drive for isolation continues, when prolonged hopelessness interferes with daily life it’s very important to get professional help. Yet so many individuals don’t. The line between sadness and depression is blurred in today’s society; there is certainly more to clinical depression than just “feeling blue.”
While research shows that many factors contribute to depression — including biological, genetic, psychological, and environmental ones — it is particularly important to understand the effects of gender stereotypes and media images on our ability to recognize when mental health goes awry. Not all people exhibit the common symptoms portrayed in media, which makes it difficult to diagnose and treat men who have forms of depression that are not acknowledged due to gender stereotypes and expectations.
Depression is not a “feminine” illness, but an illness any woman or man can experience at any time, and for many reasons. It can affect women and men of all ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses — in fact major depression is diagnosed in people all across the world from a wide array of demographics.
Christopher Kilmartin states in Depression in Men: Communication, Diagnosis and Therapy that statistics show that twice as many women are diagnosed with major depression than men, but men die by suicide four times more often than women. Research also shows that men abuse alcohol and other drugs at least twice as often as women.
We have to consider the role gender stereotypes play in these findings. It seems possible that men are not seeking help due to gendered expectations of stoicism and suppression of emotions and that stereotypes of masculinity and criteria for diagnosis prevent boys and men from asking for and getting help. It also seems possible that the images we see of mental illness and gender stereotypes in society today affect a practitioner’s ability to diagnose major depression properly.
We must also ask what it means that the criteria listed in the manual professionals use to diagnose major depressive disorder are predominantly “feminine” (emotional symptoms and vulnerabilities) and fail to address the “masculine” manifestations (more dissociative and action-oriented symptoms). Perhaps this accounts for an over-diagnosis of depression in women and an under-diagnosis in men.
Although approximately 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive order by the age of 18, depression is rarely addressed in schools or communities. We can help women and men struggling with depression by learning the facts and by calling for less stereotypical images of depression in both the media and pop culture. I believe that if we are able to pinpoint gendered stereotypes and challenge false assumptions about depression, we will begin to fight the stigma and truly help those struggling with this common mental illness.
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