Wellbeing and Mental Health

Why are women more depressed than men?

A new study by WHO analysis the prevalence of depression in men vs women

A new study by WHO analysis the prevalence of depression in men vs women Image: Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash

Gayle Markovitz
Acting Head, Written and Audio Content, World Economic Forum
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SDG 05: Gender Equality

  • Depression is predicted to be the second leading cause of global disability burden by 2020. It is twice as common in women.
  • Gender-specific risk could be a likely cause. This includes gender-based violence, socio-economic disadvantage, income inequality, low social status and rank, and responsibility for the care of others.
  • The World Health Organization says more research is needed to analyze the reasons and impact of depression in men vs women.

We are familiar with statistics that quote the higher prevalence of suicide among men versus women. We also know that the overall rates of psychiatric disorders, like bipolar, are almost identical for men and women. But which gender is more depressed? There are significant gender differences in the patterns of mental illness and it seems that women suffer more from depression than men.

Depression in men vs women

Mental health is now less and less stigmatized as society confronts the issue's impact on healthcare, workplaces and economies. There is increasing publicity around celebrity mental-health problems, amplified under the spotlight of social media.

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In Britain about 11% of workers’ sick days are because of mental health and sufferers who do manage to get to work are usually less productive. The cost of disability payments to those unable to work at all is nearly 3% of GDP in Europe.

Possible causes for clinical depression include a combination of biological, psychological and social sources of distress.

On the social front, as far back as 2009, a US study broadly analysed mental health by gender. It found that “by many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women's happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men.”

This was in contrast to the 1970s, where the reverse was true. So it seems that women are affected more than men by social sources of distress, and the story is less grim for men vs women mental health.

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Studies by the WHO highlight differences in men vs women mental health stats and the rates of common mental disorders (like depression, anxiety and somatic complaints). Women predominate. These disorders affect approximately one in three people and constitute a serious public health problem. "Unipolar depression" (distinct from bipolar) – predicted to be the second leading cause of global disability burden by 2020 – is twice as common in women.

While this may be partly due to women being more likely to seek help for depression, the WHO also cites,

“economic and social policies that cause sudden, disruptive and severe changes to income, employment and social capital that cannot be controlled or avoided (and) significantly increase gender inequality and the rate of common mental disorders.”

World Health Organization

Differing depression rates by gender

The 2020 Global Gender Gap Report points to the disproportionate burden of household and care responsibilities that women continue to carry compared to men almost everywhere. This contributes to the financial disparities between women and men, affecting overall economic participation and opportunities gaps worldwide – and likely a source of significant social distress and the reason for the differing prevalence of depression in men vs women.

The report says,

“In no country in the world is the amount of time spent by men on unpaid work (mainly domestic and volunteer work) equal to that of women; and in many countries, women still spend multiple-folds as much time than men on these activities. Even in countries where this ratio is lowest (i.e. Norway or the United States) women spend almost twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work.”

Global Gender Gap Report 2020
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  • Global Gender Gap Report 2020
The proportion of unpaid work is a differential for depression in men vs women
The proportion of unpaid work is a differential for depression in men vs women

In addition, there are gender-specific risk factors for common mental disorders that disproportionately affect women. These include gender-based violence, for example. The high prevalence of sexual violence to which women are exposed and the correspondingly high rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following such violence, renders women the largest single group of people affected by this disorder.

We also see that for all the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women’s jobs are more at risk from automation than those of their male counterparts. For every seven men in occupations with a 90 per cent likelihood of automation, there are 10 women.

But what about the biological and psychological causes? Perhaps the inherent specifics of mental health by gender need more attention, rather than default to the rather vague idea that depression is a symptom of social malaise.

Genetic research shows that genes may account for higher risk of depression, but they are not predeterminant. Just because you have mental illness in your family, you or your offspring are not necessarily doomed to a life of suffering from the same thing. Anxiety and depression in men vs women - in particular, are caused by social factors too: financial insecurity, housing or food insecurity, meaninglessness and lack of purpose (particularly at work), bullying, isolation and loneliness.

It is clear that the social structures in place all over the world disadvantage women in various arenas, including in the workplace and at home.

These disparities in mental health statistics provide fresh evidence that the gender gap needs closing – both in mental health-specific research and in broader social structures.

Peter Varnum, Project Lead, Global Health and Healthcare, World Economic Forum

Given that healthy, happy people tend to be more productive and contribute more actively to innovation, wealth generation and success, mental health may be the right place to start to close the other gender gaps.

The WHO concludes, “Depression is not only the most common women's mental health problem but when we refer to the prevalence of depression in men vs women, women are in an unfortunate lead. More research is needed.”

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Related topics:
Wellbeing and Mental HealthEquity, Diversity and InclusionHealth and Healthcare Systems
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