Women and depression: A complicated relationship

Depression is a severe condition characterised by a significant change in mood, pleasure and motivation regarding our usual activities.

Researchers have highlighted that women are from two to three times more at risk to developing a depressive disorder during adolescence and adult life then men.

This data highlights the importance of spreading information and knowledge of this problem and promoting access to effective treatments.  

Why are women more at risk? 

Many factors seem to contribute in increasing this risk. First of all, biology plays an important role: there is a huge hormonal difference between men and women.

Sexual hormones have a direct impact on our psychological life and in particular on our emotions and motivational systems. Women experience very different fluctuations of these hormones during their life; specifically there are three periods in women’s life that involve intense hormonal fluctuations (and therefore a higher risk): puberty, puerperium and menopause. Indeed in pre-puberty and post-menopause, the risk for depression seems to be equal between genders.  

Another important role is played by cultural and social factors.

Different specific social factors have been identified as contributing to an increased risk, such as taking on multiple roles, being mother of two or more kids under 14, experiencing a lack of social support, having a poor relationship with the partner, retirement, having experienced bereavement during infancy and being a caregiver.

In particular, the caregiver role is culturally more linked to women than men; interestingly, it seems that in Scandinavian countries, where gender equality is more acknowledged, the incidence of depression in women is lower.  

Risky moments in a woman’s life

As written above, puberty, puerperium and menopause involve deep hormonal fluctuations in women and at the same time significant changes in roles and identities. These changes might not be so easy for every woman to adapt to; some of them, because of personal and genetical predisposition, may experience some difficulties and stress in dealing with these changes, thus bringing an impact on an already particular biological substrate. 

Specifically, puberty implies deep biological, physical and psychological changes, with the girl experiencing more and more autonomy and responsibilities for the first time. Furthermore, a specific kind of depression is linked to the menstrual cycle, called premenstrual dysphoric disorder.

Puerperium and the first year of motherhood are also very delicate moments in a woman’s life.
Indeed pregnancy can be associated with physical and psychological stress, and becoming a mother for some of them may bring not only joy and happiness but also feelings of loss of independence, extreme responsibilities and sometimes very high expectations about themselves.

In these instances, experiencing depressive symptoms is normal and transient (the so-called baby blues); but for about 10% of women these symptoms may turn into a postpartum depression. This kind of depression has a particular importance, as it might prevent the new mom to fully fulfil her new role and it might impact on the quality of the attachment bonding with the baby. 

Menopause is also a very risky moment, in particular the pre-menopause period. This life moment is characterised by an irregular cycle, muscle and articular pains, sleep problems and endocrine changes. Furthermore, beyond these physical changes, menopause may be difficult to deal with because of its own personal meaning and other significant events may contribute in a negative way, as not having satisfactory working activities, friendships or relationships. 

How to use this information

The recognition of these features represents an important tool. Knowing that women have a higher risk of developing a depressive disorder and that there are defined moments in a woman’s life that specifically raise this risk, should allow us to keep an eye particularly open and to promptly react if depressive signs show up in order to receive appropriate treatment.

At the same time, if you have a previous history of depression and you are about to go through one of these delicate moments mentioned above, keeping both eyes open is important.

In either circumstance, depression can be faced and managed with an appropriate support. Depending on the symptom’s severity, psychotherapy and/or psychiatric support are highly recommended.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, WC1A 1LH
Written by Ilaria Tedeschi
London, WC1A 1LH

Ilaria Tedeschi is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist, BACP registered, working in Marylebone both in English and Italian, with adult and adolescent clients experiencing depressive, anxiety, sleep and relational issues.

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