Understanding mental illness

By Alexa Faria
Contributing Writer

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “one in four adults—approximately 61.5 million Americans—experiences mental illness in a given year.”  Mental illness can consist of many different mental health conditions that affect an individual’s thinking, feeling, mood, and overall behavior.

The most serious forms of mental illness are depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Despite the social stigma that is often associated with mental illness, these diseases are treatable. In order to understand mental illness, it is important to understand mental health.

Mental health consists of an individual’s emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. In order for an individual to be considered mentally healthy they must have self-esteem and self-acceptance.

A mentally healthy individual is comfortable having relationships and is able to maintain those relationships. They must have a sense of psychological wellbeing, a sense of independence, and a sense of purpose. When one does not possess these characteristics it can be a warning sign that an individual is developing a mental illness.

A mental illness can be a result of many different things that a person has experienced in their lifetime. People are at risk of having a mental illness based on their genes, stressors in their environment, traumatic experiences, biological factors, use of illegal substances, a pregnant mother’s exposure to toxins, and even other medical issues can be a factor in developing a mental illness.

Due to the number of risk factors and the nature of these factors, some individuals become more susceptible to mental illness than others— specifically women.

The gender disparities that exist in society play a major role in the cause of mental illness. Unipolar depression, also known as clinical depression, or major depressive disorder, is twice as common in women.

One can look at the causes of mental illness listed previously, and it is evident that mental illness is highly dependent on individual experiences, and stress.

Stressors that affect women specifically can include socioeconomic disadvantage, income inequality, subordinate social status, gender-based violence, and gender roles that women are expected to play. The way women are perceived and treated by society is directly correlated to their increased susceptibility to mental illness.

The constant pressure of being expected to live by the standards society has deemed appropriate for a woman is often overwhelming. Those who defy these expectations are more prone to being marginalized or perceived negatively by their peers.

Societal pressures and expectations can influence an individual’s self-esteem so negatively that it can often become nonexistent. Self-esteem and self-acceptance are characteristics of adequate mental health. It is difficult for an individual to maintain a sense of self-acceptance if one feels society and their peers do not accept them.

Societal expectations are only one component of the stressors a woman may experience in her life. Another factor that increases susceptibility to mental illness in women is gender-based violence.

According to United States Agency for International Development, “one out of three women will be beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.” Gender-based violence is a huge risk factor for women because women that have been victims of sexual violence or domestic violence are often traumatized.

Being a victim of sexual violence affects a person’s ability to maintain relationships, and being able to maintain fulfilling relationships is a characteristic of being mentally healthy.  Sexual violence often causes post-traumatic stress disorder in women, and according to the World Health Organization, women are the largest group of people affected by it.

A woman’s socioeconomic status also is a risk factor. Women have been trying to achieve the same socioeconomic status as men in society for years. The idea that a woman’s role consists solely of domestic duties is a social stigma that has burdened women for several decades.

Although there has been progress, women all over the world are still considered inferior to men, especially within a professional setting. Today women still do not receive equal pay, and men still control most power positions.

This becomes a stressor for women because they also need to make an income to support themselves and their families. This makes women more susceptible to mental illness because men do not have this disadvantage. Women are constantly at a disadvantage because of stigmas that have derived from the roles and social positions that society has placed on them historically.

Even if men and women share the same symptoms, women are more likely to be prescribed psychotropic drugs than men due to gender bias. Women are more likely to seek help from their primary care doctor whereas men would rather see a specialist to avoid shame. However, women are less likely to admit to alcohol abuse because society would perceive them negatively.

There are several different factors that can cause mental illness and certain populations are affected more than others. Women only make up one population that is affected by mental illness.

It is important to acknowledge that certain populations are more susceptible to mental illness then others. In understanding the causes of mental illness, comes a better understanding of the treatment.

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