Sexist Biology: Is depression really worse for women?

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Is depression truly sexist? Is it meaningful to say who has it harder, men or women?

This post is a response to the article with the provocative title How Stress Hits Women’s Brains Harder—and Why Men Don’t Always Get It. I thought this would be a perfect discussion following my previous post where I open up about my own experience with depression.

While it is true that depression and anxiety disorders are diagnosed in women by almost double, does that allow statements like those mentioned above to hold any weight?

Studies consistently find that more women experience depression than men, but just because depression is more common in women doesn’t imply a measurement of severity. One could site the fact that more men than women commit suicide. Yet even that isn’t necessarily an implication of severity, although on the surface it would certainly seem so.

Men and women are very different biologically and to state otherwise is just not factual and at least the article I’m responding to acknowledges this. It isn’t a radical alt-right opinion, rather a biological fact. Women tend to be more neurotic than men. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. This is a component of what sets typical female behavior patterns apart from typical male behaviors.

Neurotic behaviors (not neurosis, a mostly outdated psychological term) are believed to be a contribution of our evolution; this is how we ensured the survival of our offspring.

Neurotic in its simplest translation means to worry more. Have you ever worried about what others think of you? Obsessed over a mistake you made? Mistakes leading to overthinking of what you could have done differently. Ever been described as a perfectionist because of your aversion to making mistakes? Congratulations, you’ve experienced neuroticism.

Now, of course any human who has a pulse and is over the age of 13 can relate to these experiences, but for certain individuals there is heightened severity and re-occurrence. Those that have more severe experiences may be associated with symptoms of anxiety disorders or depression.

Does that mean there are not any neurotic men? Certainly there are. Just like there are women who are not overtly neurotic. But on a whole, women tend to be more prone to neurotic tendency. This may be one of the many variables on why more women are diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders than men.

Stoicism, a typically male behavior of guarded emotional reaction, may also be another factor to consider in the skewed statistics. Men are much less likely to display their emotional state let alone seek help for their depression. Maybe depression is so under represented in the male population because they simply don’t get diagnosed. Within the referenced article the author framed it to argue the opposite; that because men typically don’t express their emotions they don’t “ruminate” on things as much as women do (Cook, 2019). Therefore implying that men just get over it. On a superficial level, many people can probably find some humor and truth in this. But speaking seriously on the topic of mental health and using subjective hearsay is not quantitative or qualitative.

Remember, I’m not arguing the point of statistics or denying the fact that there are certainly more women diagnosed with depression. Female hormones certainly play a major role in that. Many studies have found hormones to be a contributing factor. A 2018 study by Gregory, et al., further supported evidence that women are at a much higher risk of depression when taking hormonal contraceptives, especially younger women between the ages of 18-29.

This theory is consistently seen throughout studies. Another study confirmed that low levels of free testosterone and higher levels of prolactin contributed to depression in men (Khan, et al., 2010). So maybe biology is a bit sexist in the sense that men’s naturally higher levels of testosterone benefit as a buffer to depression. But then again, there are men with regular testosterone production who still suffer from depression. We just don’t have all the answers and the why’s. Every individual is just that, individual.

Psychological disorders are never caused by just one thing. There are certain factors that make individuals at a higher risk or prone to psychological disorders like depression, yet these individuals may never actually experience a depressive episode. This is when professionals utilize what is called a diathesis. A diathesis is not only an individual’s predisposition to a psychological disorder, but also their life experiences. Things like childhood, education level, traumatic experiences, family relationships, etc. are all a part of an individual’s diathesis.

I am not arguing against the unfortunate fact that women struggle with depression two-fold. What I am arguing is who’s to say who has it harder? How is it even comparable? The answer is, it’s not.

Men and women generally follow gender normative lifestyles. And those norms are accompanied by different types of life stressors. Men typically have manual labor stresses due to the occupations they choose and financial stresses due to the family role they take on. Women tend to have emotional and physical stressors of motherhood. Paired with the stress of the modern woman taking on both caregiver and career roles. And then there are a zillion other factors that happen on each individual basis from life trauma to disease that have no bias to gender. Different lives lead to different stressors and how we handle those stressors has a lot to do with something called temperament. Every individual has a temperament that either helps or heeds in reaction to stressors.

Temperament is how individuals are able to adapt and deal with stressors and it plays a major role in resiliency; our ability to bounce back after a negative experience. Temperament is a genetic factor mostly independent of development. In layman’s terms, you’re born with it and the path of your life neither changes nor shapes it. But there is not a male and female temperament; one can’t say that women have a better or worse temperament for resiliency nor can they say the same for men, respectively.

So, what is my point? Throwing around unsupported assertions only adds to the men versus women hotbed in the current political climate. The sexes need not be enemies. Man-hating, man-blaming and the subsequent victimization of an entire gender is not the answer. I am a woman and I suffer from clinical depression but I would never use my diagnosis to erase the experiences of another human, regardless of who he or she is.

The article in which I am responding is not overtly unhelpful. The author makes many good points and cites reliable sources. The article offers helpful behavioral tips for interacting with men who may not understand how to deal with stressful experiences. But in the end, the choice of title was poorly executed and the citing of men’s ability to “get over it” seems a little less scientific and a little more ‘girls rule and boys drool’.

When it comes to depression, stating that women have it harder is neither a provable nor beneficial hypothesis. Even worse, in one foul swoop it dismisses men diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders altogether. Maybe we should be more thoughtful in our discussions on mental health and not try to place the trophy of victimhood upon the entire female population. Although it may be true that women are from Venus and that men are from Mars, and that we certainly seem to have a difficult time understanding one another, doesn’t justify provoking mental health as a battle of the sexes.

Fun science fact:

Another example of a misinterpretation of biology and sex differences. In reference to body temperature, it is an assertion that women are always colder than men. Hence our need to always bring that sweatshirt to the movies. Well, whether you are a man or a woman, 62 degrees is 62 degrees. It’s not as if a woman is experiencing a colder temperature than a man in the same environment. But what is true is that women are more sensitive to temperature than men. Translated: women are much more uncomfortable in a 62 degree room than a man would be. Why is this? It’s believed to be yet another evolutionary tell of how women ensured their child’s survival. If there was a chill coming in, a mother would be sensitive to that temperature change and warm her child. Science rocks!

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed and please feel free to leave a comment. I always read and respond. Check out my previous post about my own experience with depression here.

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