feminism and mental health: challenging stigma and creating change
Women’s mental health is under serious strain. One in six Australian women experience depression and a further one in three have Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Women are also more likely than men to develop an eating disorder and are at a heightened risk of PTSD.
Things are even worse for Indigenous women in Australia. 33.2% of Indigenous Australians have reported experiencing high psychological distress and, shockingly, the suicide rate amongst Indigenous peoples in Australia is twice as high as it is for non-Indigenous people.
Recent progress has improved gender equality in Australia. However, there is still much to be done to alleviate gender-based discrimination, inequity, and systemic oppression. Though mental health is a complex issue, we cannot afford to ignore the stigmas and pervasive beliefs that continue to reinforce gender-based inequities today.
Understanding Gender Discrimination
Everyone experiences challenges and strain in their lives. However, women are more likely to develop conditions like anxiety and depression due to avoidable inequities in society at large. Gendered inequities, like lower income, reduced access to healthcare, and gendered occupational segregation, disproportionately affect women and undermine their mental wellbeing. This sentiment is echoed by a recent study published in BMC Public Health.
The study, which concentrated on women in Victoria, found that women experienced heightened psychosocial determinants of mental health (domestic violence, loneliness, reduced access to healthcare, etc.) than male peers. These psychosocial determinants were exacerbated by gendered inequities that are still pervasive in Australian society today.
Identifying the psychosocial determinants of gender discrimination and mental health is an important step toward creating change. But we must also commit to tackling the root cause of discrimination by addressing systemic inequality that remains rife across Australia.
Systemic inequities can be difficult to understand. Put simply, systemic inequalities refer to the inequities that are “baked into” a country’s legal, financial, and educational systems. Systemic inequalities can be difficult to identify because some amount of inequality is integral to the smooth functioning of capitalist systems. As such, systemic inequalities often go unnoticed for decades.
However, ignoring gendered systemic inequality has a grave impact on the mental health and wellbeing of Australian women. For example, current inequality in the legal system means that less than 1% of practicing lawyers in Australia are Indigenous. This is a serious issue, as low representation may exacerbate the legal psychosocial determinants of poor mental health amongst Indigenous women.
Fortunately, recent campaigns to alleviate the gendered psychosocial determinants of poor mental health have gained traction. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC) recently released a discussion paper titled National Strategy to Achieve Gender Equality that identifies key systemic issues like:
- Income inequality
- Women’s burden of care
- Gendered violence
- Underrepresentation in leadership
- Intersectional issues
The paper also identified stereotypes and stigmas that prevent meaningful progress. These stigmas and pervasive beliefs must be addressed if psychosocial determinants of poor mental health like occupational gender segregation are to be overcome.
Stigmas and Pervasive Beliefs
The recent PMC paper reinforces the idea that we all “consciously and subconsciously,” hold beliefs about what “men and women, boys and girls should do, or can do”. While some of these stereotypes may be rooted in reality, many are harmful, unnecessary, and harm women’s mental health.
Addressing the stereotypes that harm women’s mental health is vital for the long-term happiness and health of women in Australia. Failing to address harmful stereotypes can even undermine women’s performance at work. Negative mental health in the workplace can cause a 35% decline in cognitive performance and may lead to long-term issues like burnout and chronic stress.
Much must be done to address stigmas and pervasive beliefs. However, feminists can draw strength from the stories of women like actress Heather Mitchell, who challenged pervasive stigmas on stages and sets. Through her work, Mitchell has championed the mental health of women and has led calls for change in her work environment and beyond.
Calling for Change
Calling for change can be scary. Women who push feminism and advocate for their own mental health may face backlash in the form of domestic violence and psychological abuse. Women who face any form of violence or threat while calling for change should utilise government support services designed to protect all people from harm.
Women who have suffered psychological distress in the past can work with mental health providers in their area to improve their resilience and build coping mechanisms. For example, many women may struggle with medical anxiety due to adverse, gendered experiences in the past. Women who have medical anxiety can alleviate some of their symptoms by working with feminist providers who help them practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing and mindfulness.
Women who lead calls for change may find advocacy and activism stressful, too. This is entirely understandable, as the scale and depth of gendered inequity can feel overwhelming. As such, women should consider pursuing feminist therapy to alleviate the impact of patriarchal oppression.
Feminists can support the mental health of women across Australia by calling for changes and dismantling gendered systems of oppression. Women who want to raise others up can challenge the stigma in their daily lives and should amplify the calls to increase income equality, access to healthcare, and representation in positions of leadership.
Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer passionate about workplace equity, and whose published works cover sociology, politics, business, education, health, and more. You can see more of her work by visiting her portfolio.