Mental Illness a Leading Cause of Disability for Australian Women
9 March 2018 at 12:43 pm
Mental illness is a leading cause of disability for women in Australia, and social factors are putting women at a higher risk of experiencing anxiety and depression than men, a prominent women’s health standards body has warned.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) organised the first National Women’s Health Summit on 2 March, bringing together key figures in the women’s health sector to discuss urgent challenges facing Australian women.
The conference focused on placing women’s health within the context of social determinants, and noted that women and girls have higher rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders than males, while also being more likely to engage in self-harming behaviour.
RANZCOG vice president Dr Vijay Roach, told Pro Bono News that it was important to remember that mental illness was a cause of disability.
“It’s a leading cause of disability [for women] because mental illness itself has a very high prevalence. But the most significant problem is that because mental illness is associated with significant stigma, mental illness often goes undiagnosed,” Roach said.
“And so the responsibility of our community is to try to lift the stigma. The responsibility of health professionals is to screen for mental health disorders across all demographics and then to develop pathways to care, having identified a person who is at higher risk for mental illness.”
Roach said that the way females have been conditioned in society is a key reason why they experience higher rates of depression and anxiety than men.
“I think what we’re observing is a psychosocial phenomena,” he said.
“As a result of the way women are socialised, they’re at higher risk of experiencing anxiety and depression. For example with eating disorders, young women are very targeted in terms of their body shape, in terms of their weight, in terms of their appearance, in terms of their sexuality.
“So they’re a targeted group who are going through the vulnerability of puberty and teenage years and can have a greater vulnerability to becoming obsessive about their appearance or about what they eat.”
He said these issues followed women into to their reproductive years.
“Women also feel an enormous pressure because there are profound physical changes that occur in pregnancy but also the pressure of being responsible for a newborn baby,” Roach said.
“Then there’s isolation that’s often associated with early mothering and the profound physical and hormonal changes that occur as well.
“One in five women will experience some form of anxiety and depression during pregnancy or in the first year after their baby is born and suicide is the leading cause of maternal death.”
The RANZCOG vice president also highlighted the inequality of social circumstances as a leading reason why women were at increased risk of suffering mental health issues.
“Women are more likely to be less well-off economically, they’re more likely to experience domestic violence, they are more likely to have low paying or low skill work, they’re more likely to be abused at home, they’re more likely to take on the burden of housework and childcare and so on and so forth,” Roach said.
“And those things can impact on mental illness as well.”
Given these challenges facing women, Roach said the first step was addressing these problems as a social issue.
“Therefore there is a community perspective on this and that’s where groups like beyondblue come in, in an effort to reduce the stigma around mental illness. Because if we start talking about it then we can normalise a lot of those issues and people are more likely to seek help,” he said.
“And then I think that the role of government is to support that campaign, but also to provide the tools for clinicians to screen women effectively so that we identify them.
“Having identified women who are at risk, then the government or society needs to support pathways to adequate care. That may involve housing and economic [solutions], but it should also include access to appropriate clinical services like counsellors and psychologists and social workers and psychiatrists.”
Roach said for women experiencing mental health issues, “talking to your general practitioner is definitely the first step”.
“If you’re having symptoms that are consistent with anxiety or depression or other mental illnesses, then I would encourage women to seek help… in the same way that you would seek help for a physical symptom,” he said.
“RANZCOG recognises that there is no health without mental health and that the mental health of women is integral to their care in all aspects of life. Mental health is vital to all women.”