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5 October 2016

Are women still seen as more mentally fragile than men?

"To everyone else my mental illness made me more female than ever: fragile, weak, unfit even to offer an accurate account of my innermost experiences."

By glosswitch Glosswitch

Who would want to be a young woman today? I certainly wouldn’t. It seems that modern life is driving them literally insane.

According to a report by NHS Digital, more women aged 16 to 24 are experiencing mental health problems than ever before, with young women being three times more likely than their male peers to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Various triggers are being suggested: sexual violence; childhood trauma; new pressures from social media.

Whatever the precise cause, there is something about this most recent of news that feels strangely timeless. Once again the same low-status group – the wrong age, the wrong sex – falls prey to mental instability, and the society in which the sickness emerges is the same one to diagnose and to treat it.

Reading headlines such as “mental illness is soaring among young women” and “young women ‘at highest mental health risk’” I can’t help thinking of the phrase “moral panic.” Or not quite that. I believe these young women are ill. I believe their suffering is real. But still my mind wanders to stories of 1950s housewives dosed up on tranquilisers, or 19th century hysterics locked up in asylums in what Elaine Showalter dubbed “the rise of the Victorian madwoman.” We look back on such stories and mull over what terrible times those were. But are we really that much better? Is the mass treatment of young women’s intense distress ever anything more than an attempt to acclimatise them to daily assaults that show no sign of stopping? 

Once again women are faced with an impossible choice: live as a human being in a world that does not see you as such. Try to be a person in a world that sees you as part brood mare, part wilting flower. Try to be a person in a world that sees you as technicolour Stepford Wife. Try to be a person in a world that sees you as revenge porn fodder, a conglomeration of holes to penetrate, an object to be shouted at in the street and ignored both in the workplace and at home. You can try all you like, but you could still be forgiven for failing.

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It has taken me a long time to understand my own experiences as a mentally ill young woman in political terms. By which I do not mean that my own anorexia and depression were consciously thought-out protests, but that they were related to beliefs about what I, as an almost-woman, ought to be. There was something about pain and the avoidance of puberty which gave me the sense of clinging on to that inner life that women were not supposed to have. I didn’t want to be “normal” because “normal” for women was not the same as “human.” Yet every treatment I underwent had as its main goal the task of “normalising” me, making me fit for a society which was not changing in any way.

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The simultaneously willed and unwilled nature of mental distress – feeling utterly terrified of the most harmless of things, yet also strangely conscious of where your terror situates you in relation to others – is difficult to explain. I do think there is a form of contagion with the way in which trauma manifests itself in young women, not in the sense that women deliberately copy off one another, but rather that trauma has a particular language at particular times. I used to feel that being ill made me slightly more real, more aware of my edges. Perhaps even slightly more like a man, were it not for the fact that to everyone else, it made me more female than ever: fragile, weak, unfit even to offer an accurate account of my innermost experiences.

According to Sarah Brennan, chief executive of Young Minds, young men and women respond to stress in different ways: “young men tend to externalise pressure – for instance by being angry or violent – while young women are more likely to internalise their feelings, and take them out on themselves, for example by cutting or through eating disorders.” Maleness is criminalised, femaleness pathologised. Meanwhile the link between the anger and violence of men and the shrinking away of women is left unexamined.

There must, I think, be a balance between helping young women cope with their daily lives while also recognising that they should not have to cope with the world as it is. It should not be this way. What I see beneath these headlines is not frailty or sickness, but fear. It is not all in our heads.