May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and while mental health concerns affect everyone, women face distinct challenges. Women possess unique biochemical and hormonal influences that predispose them to certain mental illnesses, and they respond differently to environmental stresses. Gifted women face the same mental health risks as others, and recognizing these risks is critical.
In comparison to men, women are two to three times as likely to experience anxiety, twice as likely to become depressed, and develop post-traumatic stress disorder twice as often. Ninety percent of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, occur in women. Post-partum depression occurs in up to 13% of women during the first year after childbirth. On the other hand, women are less likely to experience impulse control and substance abuse disorders. (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 2009
Some of the reasons for these differences can be attributed to biochemistry. Hormonal fluctuations associated with menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause can precipitate the onset of depression or anxiety, and affect the intensity or frequency of symptoms. Some studies
suggest that there are gender differences in how the brain processes emotionally arousing information Environmental factors also play a role. Women are raised with different expectations in terms of gender roles, the demands placed on them by their families, and assumptions regarding what they should be able to achieve. Women often have to navigate challenges such as discrimination, single parenthood, lower wages and poverty, and are typically the caretakers in their families. They are also more likely to be victims of violence and abuse, which can contribute to an increased risk of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder.
While genetic or biochemical triggers of mental illness are not always preventable, early identification and treatment can reduce the severity, chronicity, and long-term effects that may pass from generation to generation. Various forms of enrichment and support can provide protective benefits for young girls. Parenting children in a positive and respectful manner, providing positive role models, nurturing supportive relationships with family, encouraging healthy independence, and offering opportunities for young girls to achieve their goals, can provide a preventive buffer that promotes mental health. Efforts to prevent violence and abuse are critical, both within families and in schools and neighborhoods, and early intervention is essential when abuse has occurred.
Gifted women and girls face some unique stressors. While research investigating whether gifted individuals are more prone to mental health problems has been contradictory, many gifted individuals suffer because of their emotional intensity. Heightened sensitivity, a passion for social justice issues, overexcitabilities, and asynchronous development amplify social differences. Bullying, peer pressure, and difficulty fitting in create stress and emotional anguish. Gifted girls, in particular, may hide their abilities, "dumb themselves down" and avoid traditionally masculine fields of study to remain popular. Gifted girls and women (along with men) also may be misdiagnosed due to misunderstanding among professionals about the social and emotional aspects of giftedness.
Parents and teachers can help gifted girls appreciate their abilities and assert their needs without shame. While some families still grapple with stereotypes that choose appearance over accomplishments, most struggle more with questions regarding their daughter's social and emotional adjustment. If signs of depression, anxiety or other concerns become apparent, it is critical that families seek counseling for their children. More information about the benefits of psychotherapy can be found through the APA.
As adults, each woman needs to discover what constitutes “mental health” for herself. Finding a blend of serenity, creativity, and joy is a goal that many women find hard to achieve, but can be attained. Learning how and when to assert one’s needs, setting limits and asking for emotional support can enrich relationships. Cultivating healthy optimism, an adventurous spirit, a balance between work and play, and some meaningful self-reflection can enhance personal growth. Giftedness is no protection against mental health problems. Early identification and treatment is critical to ensuring recovery and future well-being.