Where Feminism Meets Disability Rights Pt 1: A Look at Mental Illness

Mental illness, and the stigma which exists against the mentally ill, are huge problems in the United States, and indeed, in many places.  Mental illness crosses racial and class lines; it exits around the world, and is treated differently in different communities, but at the end of the day, it is as commonplace as it is treated shameful.  Though it may be obvious why mental illness is an important issue, it may not necessarily be clear why it is a feminist issue.

But I, of course, am here to make a case for why it is.

Let’s start with prevalence: unipolar depression is estimated to be about twice as common in women as it is in men.  If that doesn’t seem problematic, the World Health Organization explains that unipolar depression is the world’s second leading cause of global disability burden.  Women are also twice as likely as men to experience generalized anxiety disorder or specific phobias that impact their lives.  The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs reports that approximately 5 in 10 women-~or half the female population-~-experiences trauma at some point in their lives, and may manifest symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   25% of college-aged women in the U.S. report using bingeing and purging and a weight maintenance technique, an estimated 85-95% of people with anorexia are women.  Women also predominate when it comes to having multiple mental illnesses, meaning that women often suffer greater lifetime disability burdens as a result.

Those statistics alone make a decent case for why feminism should care about mental health, as one would imagine the movement should care about things which disproportionately impact women in general.  But the reality is that there is more to it than that, and my concern comes from some of the reasons why women tend to be disproportionately impacted by some of these mental health issues.

The World Health Organization notes that gender-related risk factors for mental illness include gender-based violence, unremitting care of others, low socioeconomic status, socioeconomic disadvantage, and low or subordinate social rank.  In short, that’s a list of things feminists already care about.  Gender-based violence seems like an obvious tie-in to risk for mental illness, as it often feeds into depression, anxiety, and/or PTSD.  What about the others?  Women are more likely to live in poverty than men in the United States, and are less likely to be able to leave problematic or abusive relationships, subjecting them to additional risks regarding intimate partner violence.  Low or subordinate social rank may leave women feeling like they are unable to meaningfully advocate for themselves, feeding into problems like depression or anxiety as well.

On top of that, I find it interesting that the WHO includes “unremitting care of others” as a risk factor for mental illness.  Women are the primary caregivers in most countries around the world; time use surveys reveal that women spend more time taking care of the house and their family members than their male counterparts, even when said women work full-time.  Care ethicists like Sandra Lee Bartky argue that when individuals engage in care labor are forced to pretend emotions that they do not necessarily feel, such that they engage in emotional labor; she further argues that this creates a risk for these individuals to lose the ability to differentiate between their real emotions and the ones they are faking, which can have further consequences.  While this might seem relatively harmless inside the home, where emotional labor might not be constant, women are also more likely to work in care professions such as nursing or teaching, where their emotions need to be more carefully regulated, creating the additional burden of near-constant emotional labor, and contributing to these disparities in mental illness.

But let’s take a look at how mental illness manifests in men too, because I think it also fits my argument that this is an issue that can and perhaps should be tackled from a feminist standpoint.  While men may be less likely to experience unipolar depression and equally likely to manifest bipolar disorder, they are more likely than women to develop alcohol dependency.  And while fewer men develop eating disorders, they are also much less likely to seek treatment than their female counterparts.

Part of this has to do with disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.  Psychologists are more likely to diagnose women with unipolar depression even when men show the same indicators, in part because of gendered ideas about depression and control.  Similarly, men are more likely to disclose problems with alcohol usage, and to seek treatment for said problems.

Some of these patterns, however, have to do with-~-and subsequently reinforce-~-gendered ideas within society.  The culture surrounding drinking and masculinity may well have to do with alcohol abuse among men, and the kinds of pressures men are under regarding professional success and personal obligations may be contributing factors to that abuse as well.  In addition, many men fail to seek treatment for eating disorders or other mental illnesses because they are painted as “women’s diseases”, which is counterproductive, or because we stigmatize mental illness such that it cannot fit with the current dominant narrative of masculinity.  On top of that, the idea that women are particularly prone to emotional problems is one that has created a strange and problematic feedback loop within mental health, wherein women are seen as more emotional and are therefore more likely to be diagnosed, and the fact that more women appear to suffer from conditions such as depression further reinforces the idea that women are emotional or unstable in the first place.  That’s a cycle that needs to end if we are ever going to make progress with regards to mental health.

I’ll say this, before we part: mental illness can have a huge impact on the lives of individuals who are living with it.  Mental illness may make it difficult or impossible to finish college, to hold a stable job or perform well in one, or to maintain healthy relationships. It is also a key risk factor regarding homelessness (as is domestic violence, for that matter).  If women are disproportionately living with mental illness, they are likely disproportionately living with the consequences of their disabilities as well.  If feminism wants to be truly intersectional, and wants to meaningfully work towards improving the lives of all women, then mental illness has to be an issue on our agenda.

~ by Randi Saunders on November 24, 2014.

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