Women's Mental Health
Most of us have been there before, a bad spell of days that have us begging the question "Am I depressed?" and the answer will vary from person to person on whether you will be clinically diagnosed with depression or are feeling depressed for a day or two.
Mental Health is a complex subject, and is so unique to the person. May 28th is International Day of Action for Women's Health, and at Modern Match Lingerie, we are celebrating women's health for the entire month with a series of four interviews released throughout the month, covering various women's health issues.
This week we spoke with Mary Lu Spagrud, Manger of Education & Projects Canadian Mental Health Association of Northern BC, Canada, in our interview Mary Lu answers the question to the query: "Am I depressed." And also deep dives into women's mental health.
MM: Hey Mary Lu! Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us here today and answer these questions! Let's get started, what is the difference between our mental well-being and mental health? Is there a difference?
Mary Lu (ML): One of the important things to recognize here is how we are defining mental health. Some people see mental health and mental illness as one in the same and that is not the case. Mental Health is a large part of our overall health. In fact the WHO defines health as a completed state of physical, social and mental health and not merely the absence of disease. Mental well being is simply part of our mental health. When we think of well being it's about how we cope with stress and bounce back from times of difficulty. To be able to see the positives in our lives, have good social connections and do the things we want to do and have to do to lead healthy and productive lives.
MM: Thank you for clarifying that! How do we ensure that as women we are continuously nurturing our mental well-being?
ML: There are several things we can do such as exercising and eating well. Getting a good night's sleep, maintaining healthy social connections and practicing mindfulness and self care. Those are general things everyone should do but as women it's important we consider how we prioritize our needs. Are they last or only when we think of them, we need to ensure our needs are being met with the same importance as others in our lives and not just so we are able to assist others but because we deserve it as much as anyone else. Practicing self-acceptance and loving ourselves for who we are is also important for our well-being. Practice looking at the world with an optimistic view, this doesn’t mean we don’t see the negative but we make a point to look for the good and focus on it and having gratitude for those good things we see or experience each day.
MM: Those are some really great tips, thank you. Do women suffer more from certain mental illnesses than men? Why is that?
ML: Women are more likely to experience depression and anxiety disorders than men. There are several reasons for this. Physically hormones play a fairly significant role in puberty, perimenopause, menopause and pregnancy. There is research around the possibility that cyclical changes in estrogen, progesterone and other hormones can disrupt the function of brain chemicals such as serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone that helps to stabilize our mood, feelings of well-being and happiness.
There are also life circumstances and culture that can impact a woman's mental health. Unequal power and status, women are more apt to live or risk living in poverty which can lead to fears of uncertainty about the future, access to services including health care and feelings of lack of control over their lives. Women often have multiple roles, they may work outside the home but still maintain a majority of the workload at home and around the children and even sick or elderly parents or other families. People who have experienced abuse are at higher risk. Statistically women have higher rates of experiencing abuse, whether it be verbal, emotional, physical or sexual.
MM: That is very interesting, I had no idea! What pressures do women face that perhaps men don’t to such a scale that would impact our mental wellbeing?
ML: Some of these pressures are noted above. The modern woman has come along ways but there are still societal pressures that judge us. There is still a high expectation of society for a woman to look a certain way which can increase risk of body image problems or disorders. If a woman chooses herself and her needs first or over others, society can interrupt this as insolence and places negative judgement on them. There are many studies that note that women are primarily judged on looks, nurturing abilities and being empathic and more historically male traits of ambition, leadership and assertiveness are viewed negatively if demonstrated by a woman. A focus on these traits can devalue a woman’s success and achievements not only by society but even herself. When these more “male” expected traits are shown by a woman, the judgement can be very detrimental to their well being and even their success in careers and relationships. Women can be met with name calling, questions about their femininity and identity, all which negatively impact our well-being. It is important to recognize there are societal ideals that harm men as well, the pressure of men and boys “manning up” causes many issues too.
MM: I know I can say for myself that I've known those pressures all too well in the past, and sometimes even still. What are some tips you’d give women struggling with their mental well-being?
ML: The best piece of advice I can give is to reach out. Tell someone that you are struggling, don’t go at it alone. Talk to a friend, family member to start and if needed talk to your doctor, consider seeing a counsellor. Be willing to get some help and don’t wait for it to get unbearable or ignore it and hope it will go away. It may be mild but with any illness or disease if not treated it can and likely will get worse. Know you are not alone many women struggle with mental health problems and illnesses. You might be surprised how many others have struggled similar to you. If you feel you can’t talk to friends or family there are always help lines, community agencies and support groups that are willing to listen and help you.
MM: That's so important, I definitely think that having someone to support you in getting through those difficult times is so important. How can women support other women struggling with mental health challenges?
ML: I think one of the biggest things we can do for each other as women is to be kind and show true caring and compassion for each other. We are not in competition with each other, we should focus on showing acceptance no matter how we look, whether our personality traits are “female” or “male”. We need to dismiss these societal expectations of how we need to act and truly just accept ourselves and others just as we are. Whether we have short or long hair, work outside or just in the home, choose to have or not have kids, size 2 or 22. Simply doesn’t matter. Be open and accepting of others. Take care of each other, check in and offer support when needed. Not to be scared to butt in if someone seems to be struggling, take the time to let them talk and show empathy, not judge as weak or somehow at fault for their struggles. Treat those struggling with a mental health challenge the same as you would for someone with a physical health problem. It’s really all the same regardless of what organ or part of the body is ill, treat them as you yourself would like to be treated. If you are unsure of what to do or how to help then educate yourself we take classes in physical first aid so why not mental health first aid or suicide intervention.
I think we also need to start talking about our mental health the same way we discuss our physical health. This way people are more informed but also we can realize we aren’t alone in our feelings and struggles. Being open and honest can help reduce the stigma that still exists around mental health and lessens the fear as well. Creating a community of friends and family that are open about mental health is one of the best things we can do to help ourselves and others in their overall health.
MM: Before we wrap up, I want to ask you a question that I know I have asked myself in the past, and I know I am not alone in wondering it. How do you know if you are depressed and need help?
ML: Really it's about time and intensity. We all have a day or so of feeling sad or blue or low energy but if those feelings continue for more than a couple of weeks then you should talk to your doctor or a counsellor.
Other things to consider is the intensity of the feelings and how they are impacting your ability to do the things you want to and have to do. If you are finding feelings of sadness or hopelessness are becoming overwhelming and you are losing interest and enjoyment in activities you normally enjoy consider those warning signs. Feelings and emotions that are “too much” to handle or leave you feeling overwhelmed or out of control should be discussed with a doctor or counsellor. If does not mean you have depression but it warrants closer examination.
MM: Lastly, have you or a woman who you love struggled with their mental health, what happened and how did you support the person/yourself, if you did?
ML: There have been many I have supported and reached out or who have reached out to me over the years. I think for me I have tried to let others know I strongly believe mental health is no different than physical health, which I hope has made me a safe person to reach out to. I will ask if I suspect someone is struggling, if I see that “strange” Facebook post I contact them and ask how they are doing. Each response is different, because each of us is different sometimes it's been just an ear and hug, but I have sat in the ER with people waiting for assessments, gone to doctor appointments if needed. Helped them tell their families, visited in hospital, cooked a meal or two. I also remember in all of this I need to care for myself and encourage other supports so the person is surrounded by many to help them and not just me. When I have struggled with my own mental health I practice what I preach. I ask for help, I have seen a counsellor, practice additional self care and try to remember to show myself some extra kindness.