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Seeing the light: women and depression
Outside influences significant
Shaping self-images
When adversity strikes
Taking the first step

Are you vulnerable?
Are you vulnerable?

These factors make women more likely to develop depression:

  • a family history of depression, particularly in first-degree relatives
  • a parent who has committed suicide
  • a personal history of substance abuse or eating disorders or a family history of such disorders
  • unresolved grief over a major life loss
  • unresolved anger

When to get help
When to get help

If you experience five or more of the following symptoms for longer than two weeks, or if the symptoms are severe enough to interfere with your daily routine, see your healthcare provider.

  • a persistent sad, anxious or empty mood
  • a change in sleeping habits, such as sleeping too little, especially early-morning waking, or sleeping too much
  • reduced appetite and weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain
  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • restlessness or irritability
  • persistent physical symptoms that don’t respond to treatments (such as chronic pain or digestive disorders)
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • fatigue or loss of energy
  • feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless
  • thoughts of death or suicide

In the United States, women become clinically depressed about twice as often as men do. In fact, about one in eight women will suffer an episode of depression in her lifetime. Researchers have been studying gender differences to determine why we are so susceptible to this serious, potentially life-threatening illness.

Is it biology? Are we genetically programmed to be depressed? Could our hormones be at fault? Or maybe nurture—the way our parents raised us—is to blame. Then again, how do societal pressures—our role in the community at large—affect us?

Outside influences significant

While a clear-cut answer has yet to be found, psychiatrists and psychologists generally agree that outside influences contribute significantly to our increased vulnerability to depression. Starting as girls—when many of us were encouraged to take a back seat to boys in the classroom, to be modest and soft-spoken—and continuing on through adolescence and adulthood, we are exposed to situations that affect our self-esteem.

Although genetic factors (a family history of the disease) and chemical factors (having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters) play a major role in depression, the way we feel about ourselves also affects our chance of developing the disease.

Shaping self-images

In general, women are more likely than men to base their self-worth on external signals—words of praise or criticism from our spouses, our bosses, our parents. We are also more likely than men to keep anger, frustration and other negative emotions bottled up. After all, we’re expected to make peace—not waves. We’re encouraged to nurture others, often at the expense of our own needs. Constantly challenged by media images of ideal womanhood, we may feel bad if our bodies don’t measure up.

When adversity strikes

Not surprisingly, women with a poor self-image are prone to depression when events such as a job loss, the end of a relationship, the death of a loved one, financial troubles or a miscarriage strike.

While those situations are upsetting, it is not normal for them to cause the persistent sadness and feelings of worthlessness that characterize clinical depression. Of course, not to be overlooked is the fact that clinical depression often occurs for no apparent reason.

The bottom line: No matter the triggering event (if indeed there is one), a woman should never accept persistent depression as an inevitable, normal part of life.

Taking the first step

Unfortunately, the very same preconceptions that make us more vulnerable to depression also explain our resistance to seek treatment. “Good” women don’t get depressed. Wives with loving husbands and children “shouldn’t” feel down. A new mother “should” feel happy, not overwhelmed. These sorts of internal messages may account for many of the cases of female depression that go undiagnosed and untreated.

In a National Mental Health Association survey, 41 percent of women polled cited embarrassment or shame as a reason for avoiding treatment. More than half believed it is normal for a woman to be depressed during menopause and that it is a normal part of aging. (In fact, research shows that women are at no greater risk for clinical depression during menopause than at other times in their lives.)

Overcoming the resistance to treatment can be a lifesaving step. Almost 15 percent of those suffering from severe depression eventually commit suicide. The statistic is particularly grim because highly effective treatments are available. In fact, depression can almost always be conquered with antidepressant medications, psychotherapy or both. If you or someone you love is depressed, the first step is a visit to a healthcare provider who can diagnose the illness, rule out any underlying physical causes and map out a suitable treatment plan.