Mental health is as vital as physical health and should be approached with the same openness and comfort. It plays a crucial role in our overall well-being, influencing our thoughts, emotions, choices, and actions. Unfortunately, in India, discussions about mental illness remain limited and stigmatized, especially for women. Women face a significantly higher level of internalized stigma, compounded by underdiagnosed mental health conditions, which further affect their well-being. This blog delves into the journey of women’s mental health in a patriarchal society like India, burdened with gender roles and exposed to violence, and explores the gender gap in mental well-being.
In the early history of mental health, women dealing with mental illness were viewed as weaker beings. It was believed that they were susceptible to evil influences and possession. They were subjected to punishment, herbal treatments, sexual abstinence, and even purification by fire. Although treatment methods have evolved since then, society still overlooks the unique challenges women face in perceiving and experiencing mental illness. Various factors contribute to the development of mental illness. Often stemming from societal differences in the treatment of men and women. Social stigma and barriers imposed on women throughout their lives directly impact their mental health. Thus affecting relationships, work performance, physical health, and self-esteem at each stage of life.
Diverse Mental Health Challenges
The mental health needs of women change as they age, encompassing a range of issues. In childhood, addressing and recovering from traumas are crucial. In adolescence, challenges include slut shaming and issues related to menstruation. Adulthood brings stress, anxiety, workplace harassment, and insomnia. Motherhood introduces mental health conditions like postpartum depression, while women continue to face sexual and other abuses from society and intimate partners.
Menopause brings its own mental health challenges, and old-age diseases like Alzheimer’s further compound the burden. Women often face blame and scrutiny for expressing emotions and dealing with mental illness, making it harder for them to acknowledge the need for action. Unrealistic expectations, such as always being caring and nurturing while lacking aggression or assertiveness, add an additional layer of burden to their mental health. Glorifying women’s suffering hampers their ability to express emotions and question their own strength.
Challenges and Stigma
The journey toward realizing the need to address, treat, and improve mental well-being is often complicated by gender-based expectations and the associated stigma. Women internalize conflicts and sacrifices from a young age, increasing the risk of developing mental illness. With fewer conversations around the subject and limited acknowledgment of the need to address it, opportunities for intervention and treatment diminish. Gender violence closely intertwines with women’s mental illness, often perpetrated by intimate partners or acquaintances. Shame and fear associated with victim-blaming further increase the likelihood of developing mental illness solely due to gender.
Supportive Communities and Interventions
Women supporting women have played a crucial role in initiating conversations about mental illness. Friend circles can transform into support groups, fostering awareness, care, and understanding. The patriarchal family system, where women have little say and limited opportunities, has long-term consequences for women’s mental health. Early marriage puts women at a higher risk of developing mental disorders.
Parents’ Mental Health and Gender Expectations
Parents in Indian families often experience anxiety and stress about their daughters’ future, leading to their own mental health challenges. Imposing unreasonable expectations and burdens related to mental health on parents and children based on gender perpetuates a dangerous gender gap in the pressures women face throughout their lives. Childhood traumas significantly contribute to mental illness in adulthood. Enhancing parenting skills with feminist consciousness and fostering open communication between parents and children can contribute to emotional well-being and reduce the risk of trauma-related disorders in girls. Additionally, older women often face social isolation and abandonment due to their mental health needs toward the end of their lives. Normalizing the validation and expression of emotions is crucial to initiate conversations about their well being. Associating mental illness with a lack of willpower, weak personality, or moral failure only further alienates the topic from society.
Addressing Disparities and Promoting Cultural Competence
To make significant progress, it is essential to address cultural and social disparities while increasing cultural competence in treatment approaches. Educational interventions aimed at preventing gender-based violence should be implemented from a young age. Also particularly during adolescence, to foster social and emotional competencies.
Immediate Steps Towards Mental Well-being
Apart from long-term societal changes to discontinue the practice of imposing stereotypical gender roles and unrealistic expectations, there are immediate actions we can take to support one another in reclaiming the fulfilling lives we deserve. Providing accessible information on effective strategies for overcoming mental health challenges and connecting individuals with treatment resources can make a substantial difference.
Mental health should be treated with the same level of openness and comfort as physical health. In India, addressing mental illness remains a challenge, particularly for women who face a higher level of stigma. By understanding the unique experiences and challenges faced by women in a patriarchal society, we can work towards bridging the gender gap in mental well-being. Creating supportive communities, addressing societal expectations, and promoting early interventions are essential steps toward empowering women to prioritize their mental health and lead fulfilling lives. Let us break the silence and stigma surrounding mental health to ensure a brighter future for all.