The good news? Thanks to campaigns like Bell’s LetsTalk, mental health awareness is gaining more traction than ever.
The bad is that we still have a long way to go to both remove the stigma (once and for all) and to create an on-going dialogue about mental health awareness.
But there’s progress.
Part of such progress involves recognizing that depression affects women very differently than it does men. This point was driven home yesterday, when we joined 800 other professional women at the Fairmont Royal York for the Fourth Annual Women for Women’s luncheon to benefit Women’s College Hospital (WCH).
First and foremost, the stats:
Not only are women twice as likely as men to be affected by depression, a staggering one in five women will experience depression in her life.
The event featured a panel – moderated by well-known medical expert and TV personality Dr. Marla Shapiro – to address the unique issues facing women when it comes to mental health, and to highlight the innovative work being done at WCH. It featured a powerful force of women, including WCH psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Simone Vigod, veteran radio personality Erin Davis, and Olympic silver-medalist Elizabeth Manley. It also included a few words and performance by acclaimed singer Kathleen Edwards.
So what do Davis, Manley, and Edwards have in common? Despite their success, power, and influence, have all battled depression.
And here’s how it affects women.
Women Are More Susceptible to Depression Than Men
The susceptibility of women to depression is a result of both biological and social factors.
“Women are sensitive to hormonal change, but that’s just one part of it,” says Dr. Vigod. “We are also affected by social factors – like a higher poverty rate compared to men, and higher incidences of domestic or sexual abuse – and face the pressure of trying to balance work and a family.”
“I was back on air a week after having my daughter,” said Erin Davis, who had lived with depression since she was a teenager. “My career was going so well, and I couldn’t give that up. As women, we are expected to have a million plates spinning gracefully at once, and to look good doing it.”
Women are Good at Pretending
Kathleen Edwards revealed that her struggle with clinical depression “made an excellent actress” out of her. “I felt fat, ugly, and like I wanted to be in bed, but I had to put on an act and perform on stage,” she said.
“I didn’t speak publicly about my depression until the Robin Williams tragedy,” said Davis. “People reached out and were like, ‘but you’ve always been so cheery on the radio,’ but that was my job, the rest of the day was hell.”
Women Tend to Self-Medicate with Diets, Excessive Exercise, and Alcohol
To deal with depression (and her demanding job) in her 20s, Davis turned to alcohol. “When I got home, a brandy snifter of gin would make you forget about your problems and put you to sleep nicely,” she said.
Women Often Let Themselves Hit Rock Bottom
“I didn’t recognize how bad it had gotten until I physically broke down,” said Manley, who experienced clinical depression in the wake of her former coach’s death and her parent’s divorce. “With sports, it’s all ‘shut up and do;’ you can’t cry or complain, and I kept it all inside.”
Manley’s untreated depression got so bad that she lost her hair, gained 40 lbs in water retention, and almost hung up her skates for good just before her successful 1988 Calgary Olympic Games.
There is Help
“People will help, you just have to ask for it,” says Manley. “Don’t be afraid to admit something is wrong. Therapy helped me then, and I am in therapy now. I’m not afraid to admit that in front of 800 women.”
“My daughter grew up knowing that ‘mommy has a paid friend,” said Davis, acknowledging that talk therapy helped her.
Women’s Mental Health Requires Specialized Treatment
“Women are still reporting more unmet healthcare needs when it comes to mental illness,” said Vigod. “With things like Women College’s Rapid Response Clinic, post-partum depression starts before the new baby is born.”
“There are certain psychological needs of women that need to be recognized when they come in for help,” said Vigod. “While things like meds work the same way on both sexes, a consideration of women can be as simple as possible side effects that women may be sensitive to, like weight gain, or pregnancy-friendly medications.”
As for those not suffering from mental illness, “Take the time to compliment someone, it could change their life,” said Manley.