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We Need to Talk About How Gender Stigma Affects Mental Health

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I believe gender stigmas already have a large impact on everyday life. Women are labeled “overly emotional” and “sensitive,” while men are ridiculed for showing their feelings, often being called “unmanly.” Each sex is forced in a mold that society thinks they belong in, a mold of what is “normal.” I believe these stereotypes can have a huge impact on mental illness that is not often discussed. The gender stigma can lead to unhealthy thinking and even misdiagnosis. When we become aware of the problem, that is how we can fix it.

When women are labeled “overly emotional,” they are being told they don’t have a right to their feelings. They are being told their feelings are invalid and “blown out of proportion.” Because of this they may start to think there is something wrong with the way they feel. That is not the case. Everyone’s emotions are valid, whether they’re big or small. Some people can react poorly to their emotions and may need to get a better handle on their control, but what they feel is valid because they cannot choose how to feel, only how they react.

I believe men are also judged for their emotions — but on a more restrictive scale. While women are (wrongly) expected to be “overly emotional,” men are expected to be “under-emotional.” Men are expected to be stoic, keeping their feelings under wraps and fitting stereotypes like being the “strong, silent type.” This is harmful to men because all people need to feel free to feel emotions and express them in healthy ways. Holding emotions in and not dealing with them is a maladaptive way of coping and usually ends with an outburst that does more harm than good. We need to stop stigmatizing men so they can express their emotions without being ridiculed. Because of the way people often feel forced to express themselves, misdiagnoses can also happen because feelings are not shared completely.

In many mental illnesses, there are clear disparities in the rates of men and women. Unipolar depression is found to be more common in women than in men. On the other side of the spectrum, alcohol dependency is more common in men than in women. These cases might be due to a genetic factor that makes a certain sex more predisposed to a disorder, but there is also a chance that diagnoses aren’t happening because the disorders aren’t as widely known in the gender and people don’t get help for them.

Many men who are taught to bottle up their feelings don’t acknowledge they may be struggling with depression, it’s often thought of as “just going through a rough patch” and is pushed aside — even though it can be severe and life-threatening at times. Because women are known for being more “emotional,” it is more socially acceptable for them to feel these kinds of emotions. There are also similar statistics in cases of personality disorders. Men are three times more likely than women to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. Women make up about 75 percent of the borderline personality disorder (BPD) diagnoses. I believe this is influenced by the stigma of how the sexes are perceived. Women aren’t typically seen as antisocial — they’re seen as “quiet” or “introverted.”

In the case of BPD, there are a higher number of diagnoses with women for many reasons. Again, because men are told to ignore their feelings more than women I believe they might not always realize there is a problem. Some of the theorized causes of BPD are also more common in women, such as incestuous abuse. Because more women are diagnosed with BPD, many health professionals have a skewed view of the disorder. They expect women to have the disorder more often than men and as a result men are often times undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with another disorder, and are never able to address the underlying cause.

The gender stigma affecting mental illness is keeping men and women from being properly diagnosed. They are not only mistreated simply because of how their gender is perceived to feel, but they are also in danger of going undiagnosed or misdiagnosed because of the stereotypes surrounding them. By being more aware of the stigma and addressing it by acknowledging people’s feelings, we can help more people receive the treatment they need.

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Thinkstock photo via alla_snesar.

Originally published: July 28, 2017
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