Women and a New Diagnosis: Gender Inequality Disorder

By Robyn D. Walser, PhD

As a clinical psychologist and a woman, I am interested in women’s mental health. I will often ask myself questions such as, “Why do women get diagnosed with mental health disorders twice as often as men?”1 And then I pause and ask again: “No, really, why do they?” Is it that women are more vulnerable to stress? Is it that women are more emotional and so are more likely to be considered disordered? There are a number of theories rolling around in the research literature. But I want to focus on something that I think is more powerful and insidious – gender inequality.

Social disparities have proved a differential impact on mental health for men and women. Indeed, women suffer mentally more than men in societies with greater levels of gender inequalities.1 Fighting for equality is not just about equal pay, it is also about feeling stable, safe and able to fully make personal choices in life.  It is about having freedom.

I once worked with a female client whose partner was violent. He would try to control her through verbal and physical manipulation. The case was challenging as she was not ready to leave the relationship. One day, she came to session wearing dark sunglasses and when she took them off in the therapy room, she revealed a swollen shut black eye with a cut on her brow. Her partner had punched her in the face. It was shocking. And, a second shock was about to come. She was the one who needed a diagnosis. She was in the position to be labeled with a mental health disorder – depression.

I wondered on that day if, instead of blaming her and her mental status, we could have a diagnosis called gender inequality disorder. What do you think? Instead of a mental health label that follows her everywhere, instead of her being depressed, she is simply suffering from gender inequality disorder.  The treatment is not about fixing her depression, it is about fixing gender inequality and the system that sustains it. Imagine a world where gender inequality disorder was taken seriously and as much attention was given to it as were all the disorders that women suffer from twice as much as men (although more attention than that is needed).

Also imagine that gender inequality disorder has signs and symptoms. These are:

  • domestic violence
  • sexual abuse
  • unpaid caring work
  • higher hours of work
  • low social status
  • less pay for same amounts of work
  • lack of access to reproductive rights and education
  • inequality in the areas of public health, social work, sociology, and social psychology

And…. you only need one sign to get the diagnosis.

Treatment involves changing the broader context by changing behavior in the service of creating gender equality.

See also: Empowering Women by Helping Them Choose Themselves: Mental Health Work in the Age of #MeToo

My client didn’t want to press charges. She had nowhere to go and she was afraid. When she left my office, I felt a deep sadness and sense of rage toward a system that finds clients like mine mentally ill.

She is stuck, I will give you that. She is suffering, you can have that one too. But when you have no place to go and you grow up in a system that considers you less than… it’s no wonder she thinks she has depression too.

My hope – awareness and change. Women’s equality is worth fighting for. Everyone benefits when women thrive.

1Yu, S. (2018). Uncovering the hidden impacts of inequality on mental health: a global study. Translational psychiatry8(1), 98.

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