This is the latest in a contributor column by Zoe Lauckner. Check back next issue for the latest in mental health.
We’ve all seen it, whether on television or in the real world, where a woman is depicted as the stereotypical crazy girlfriend or the psycho ex-girlfriend. Other likely renditions might include words such as neurotic, dramatic, hysterical, and so on—you know the tune. Maybe you’ve seen an episode of Family Guy when they come across a “crazy lady” and one of the main characters references Canadian actress Margot Kidder, the O.G. Lois Lane from the 1978 Superman? Why is it that the female comes to mind so readily when it comes to certain presentations of so-called abnormal behaviour, especially in the emotional realm? For those of you who don’t know Kidder’s story, as I didn’t until I began researching for this column, the successful actress experienced a psychotic break in the ‘70s. She had the courage to go public and share her experience—a brave act that’s now being used as a punchline, and is another example of a common go-to for stereotyping women as over-emotional, dramatic beings.
When tracing historical records on the conceptualization of mental illness in regards to women, things get weird really fast. As with so many things, the roots go back to some ancient philosopher who undoubtedly had too much time on his hands to ponder the nature of things. In Greek mythology, the concept of hysteria began with a physician who, upon observing the behaviour of some women who would rather flee him than be his sexual slaves, equated their behaviour to madness, caused by their uterus being poisoned by lack of orgasms and “uterine melancholy.” Common symptoms of hysteria then included excessive emotions, insomnia, loss of appetite, and muscle spasms. Solidified still, Plato chimed in to agree, and added his own twist: that unless uteruses were joined with a man they would remain sad and depressive, causing mental illness. Sounds legit, right? I mean, it’s not like society at the time was extremely oppressive and controlling to women, and these conditions created an environment well-suited for development of mental illness. Then came Freud, who mainly studied mainly only so-called hysterical women, and chalked up his theory that mental illness was really based on an internal struggle between morals and unconscious sexual drives and impulses. Yep—horny and hysterical, our history set the stage for many more centuries of sex bias within the realm of mental health.
Yet we’ve learned a lot since the ancient Greeks and even since Freud’s day, haven’t we? Hysteria as it once was has been stripped from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but may argue that diagnoses are still ripe with sex bias (take a gander at the articles on histrionic personality disorder and anti-social personality disorder—a highly debatable subject I might tackle in the future). It’s true that the statistics often support the sex difference in diagnoses; with most mental disorders, women outweigh men in the number of diagnosed cases, especially when it comes to mood disorders. In any abnormal psychology textbook, the numbers are similar: women amount to 75 per cent of those who have agoraphobia (fear of crowded and/or public places), two thirds of women experience generalized anxiety disorder, 70 per cent of people with major depressive disorder are women, women outweigh men 10 to one on eating disorder diagnoses, and so on.
Still, there are some stereotype-busting statistics too. Some might think women may primarily dominate diagnosis of a disorder characterized by an intense preoccupation with physical features, but in actuality, Body Dysmorphic Disorder is found equally in both men and women. By all accounts, the world of mental illness is not black and white; there is no capital “T” truth when it comes to sex differences in diagnoses—heck, one might argue that diagnosis itself is subjective and therefore always subject to bias. To quote one of my favourite punk bands, Operation Ivy, “All I know is that I don’t know /all I know is I don’t know nothing.”
Lastly, it’s important that we ask ourselves what other reasons could exist for these sex differences other than the stereotype that women are overly emotional, fragile, and therefore more susceptible to mental illness. The fact is, women tend to seek treatment for mental health issues more than men, as it’s more socially accepted for them to reach out for help. This brings up a whole other world of bias against men, and how males in our society are expected to conform to norms that oppress their expression of emotions and therefore make them less likely to seek help when they need it. Let that be another conversation for another column. For now, just know that lurking behind the statistics we hear about mental illness is a whole world of bias that we can only begin to conceptualize. Ask questions. Think critically. Be awesome.
Stay sane(ish), VIU. Until next time…