Why Do Women Have Double the Risk of Depression?

Why Do Women Have Double the Risk of Depression?

Women put up with a lot—that doesn’t have to include depression.

Being female doubles your lifetime risk of being diagnosed with depression. And depression impacts much more than your emotional wellbeing. It also:

  • Interferes with work, family life and your ability to complete everyday tasks
  • Causes debilitating physical symptoms for some
  • Puts you at risk for other conditions like insomnia and substance abuse

In fact, depression is the number one cause of disability among women worldwide.

Sangeeta Sinha, MD, an OBGYN at StoneSprings Hospital Center in Dulles, Virginia, discusses some of the key factors that put women at risk and explains how to get help.

Women shoulder massive responsibilities
“Women tend to take on multiple roles—maybe because of how they were raised, what’s expected of them or the expectations they set for themselves,” says Dr. Sinha. That may include going to work, caring for children, keeping up the home and more.

The piling on of responsibilities often overlaps with physical changes that take place during stages like puberty and menopause, she explains. For example, the average unpaid caregiver is a 49-year-old female. Many of these women are juggling careers, elder care, parenting, financial planning, not to mention menopause, too.

On top of any symptoms they may be experiencing, everyday demands often force women to neglect their own health needs.

“Women really invest their whole body and soul into these relationships,” says Sinha. “They stop exercising, their sleep cycle breaks up, they eat whatever is available.” These behaviors raise their depression risk even more.

Each life stage brings major hormone swings
On a physical level, women experience reproductive events that are associated with huge hormonal changes, says Sinha. 

These events include:

  • Puberty: Puberty alone doesn’t cause depression. But hormonal changes, plus mood swings, rigorous school schedules and social pressures put girls at risk.
  • Menstruation: Each year, about three million U.S. women are diagnosed with a severe form of PMS called premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD. This condition may involve depressed mood and physical symptoms that can disrupt a woman’s life. (And even routine hormone swings with PMS can cause short-term depression-like symptoms.)
  • Pregnancy: It’s a common misconception that depression only affects women after they give birth. But the intense physical, hormonal and life changes that take place during pregnancy result in depression for around 7 to 12 percent of expecting moms, says Sinha.
  • Childbirth: A brief, mild case of the “baby blues” is common among new mothers. However, about 15 percent of women will go on to develop a more serious condition called postpartum depression. Post partum depression may involve internal conflict regarding motherhood. Women might report a “loss of self,” worry they’re “going crazy” or feel overwhelming loneliness, among other symptoms.
    “This happens because the huge surges of estrogen and progesterone that you have during pregnancy are suddenly gone [after giving birth],” says Sinha. Stress, exhaustion and new responsibilities contribute as well.
  • Menopause: Depression is common around menopause because your estrogen levels drop sharply during this time. This matters because estrogen helps to regulate serotonin, a brain chemical that controls mood.

“Menopause may be one of the toughest phases because during other stressful times, you have a great deal of social support. Everyone knows when you’ve just had a baby, for example,” says Sinha. “But in menopause, you might not have as much help. That’s why you need to seek out friends your age, counseling or support groups.”

Gender inequalities contribute to depression
Depression is related, in part, to life stressors and whether someone feels they have the ability to change their circumstances. Women may face gender-specific stressors such as:

  • Workplace inequality
  • Lower incomes and fewer job options
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Sexual assault or rape

Men, of course, may face these challenges or traumas as well, though they disproportionately affect women.    

If you experience assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) for confidential help. A trained staff member can share information on counseling, resources in your area or simply listen.

Men and women may experience depression differently 
It’s important to note that the gender gap in depression rates could result from fewer men seeking treatment when they need it. 

Masculine norms like self-reliance and stoicism may cause men to deny—or overlook—depression symptoms until their condition is advanced. Even when men do reach out for help, studies show they’re less likely to receive the proper diagnosis or appropriate medications and counseling. 

Depression also may show up differently in men, for example, in the form of substance abuse. It’s important for men, their families and their healthcare providers to have open conversations about mental health. Doing so can prompt men to get the help they need, improving their lives and the lives of loved ones. 

How to get depression help
You can’t just “snap out of” depression or “get over it.” It’s a real medical condition that requires treatment such as talk therapy or medication. The first step towards recovery is telling a mental health professional what you’re feeling. Here are some ways to get help:

  • Locate a counselor in your area with Sharecare’s Find a Doctor tool
  • Learn about affordable mental health services by calling the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • If you’re having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1‑800‑273‑8255 or reach out via Live Chat
  • Find an online or in-person support group through the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

“Women are, at least, more likely to consult a doctor or talk about their depression symptoms,” says Sinha. “It’s so important to tell someone—and it would be wonderful to have supportive partners and children too, so that women who are trying to do umpteen things at the same time can take breaks to care for themselves.”

This article was updated on September 26, 2018.

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