It turns out that males and females commonly suffer mental health problems distinct to their genders. Behnaz Sanjana looks at the three most common among women.
The cells in the brain – the body’s central processing unit – fire commands every second of the day to other cells all over the body, enabling us to carry out our daily functions. But sometimes, the giant walnut in our heads falls short in effectively coordinating these billions of cells across the body, which can affect daily life.
A mental health condition hinders our thinking and everyday activities. It also helps determine how we handle stress, interact with others and make choices.
Dr Gardenia Al Saffar, consultant in psychiatry at Royal Bahrain Hospital, says: “The cause of mental illnesses is multifactorial. The most important biological factor is possibly heredity or genetics. If an individual has a relative who has been diagnosed with a mental illness, they are more likely to develop one themselves. This does not mean every individual with a family history of mental illness will be affected. Biological factors involved in the development of mental illnesses are infections, substance abuse, brain injury or abnormalities, poisoning and poor nutrition. Psychological factors that can trigger mental illness are childhood trauma, neglect and poor coping skills. The environmental factors that can contribute to mental illnesses are what we commonly call stressors, which include loss of loved ones, financial hardship, social and cultural expectations and role transitions.”
Dr Gardenia explains that depression is a serious mood disorder, and that the term is being widely and incorrectly used these days, thereby belittling the suffering of genuine patients. This also contributes to the stigma arising from the mistaken perception that mental illnesses are a result of weakness and something that people should just “get over it”. She says: “While sadness is one of the criteria required for diagnosing depression, it is not necessary to make the diagnosis as some patients simply feel irritable while others may show loss of interest in their everyday activities and feelings of tiredness and fatigue. Patients with depression also suffer from changes in their sleep, appetite and sexual drive. They complain of changes in their cognitive functioning as they notice their concentration and memory deteriorating. They find themselves perceiving the world differently to the extent that their self-esteem and confidence become poor and they might feel excessively guilty about things they may have no control over.”
In severe cases or when patients remain untreated, they find themselves feeling hopeless about the future and wishing to die or becoming suicidal.
Fortunately, depression is treatable. “The treatment depends on the cause and severity of symptoms. It usually includes medication such as antidepressants as well as psychological therapy.” The doctor notes that the possible side-effects of medication are a small challenge to deal with compared to the severe effects of depression on one’s ability to function on social and occupational levels. Lifestyle changes such as exercise, improving sleep, good nutrition and stress reduction are also powerful tools that can help speed up recovery and prevent a relapse.
We’ve all been through it – a pounding heart, rapid breathing, and the anticipation of doom. Some degree of anxiety is normal, but such feelings can become out of hand. If constant feelings of dread interfere with regular life, a mental health specialist should be consulted.
The term ‘anxiety disorder’ encompasses generalised anxiety disorder (excessive worrying about everything for a period of more than six months), panic disorder and panic attacks, agoraphobia (fear of closed spaces), social phobia and others.
Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental illnesses worldwide, with women twice as likely to be diagnosed as men.
The condition is characterised by feelings of fear, panic and uneasiness, as well as a sense of apprehension and irritability. “These are associated with physical signs and symptoms including muscle aches, fatigue, palpitations or a sensation of a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath and a dry mouth,” says Dr Gardenia. “The physical symptoms of anxiety often make patients believe they have a physical condition, making them less likely to seek psychiatric help and delay treatment.”
Severe anxiety issues, which can be accompanied by depression and substance abuse, should be addressed with medication and/or psychotherapy. If ignored, the problem usually worsens, leading to other anxiety disorders.
Bulimia, anorexia and binge eating are mental illnesses stemming from eating too much or too little, causing grave mental and physical problems.
Middle-aged women can fall prey to eating disorders, too, and often suffer without help.
Victims of anorexia nervosa suffer from a distorted body image and an obsessive fear of being overweight, when in reality they are grossly underweight. Complications brought on by extreme dieting and the resulting malnutrition include physical and psychological malfunctions.
In bulimia, patients resort to binge eating and then purge the food out through vomiting or overdoing laxatives and enemas or fasting. Frequent cycles of binge eating and purging stresses the body, which results in serious repercussions, including death.
Binge eating is compulsive eating without the purging that is typical of bulimia. Consuming thousands of calories in one sitting makes the sufferer feel pangs of deep guilt, low self-esteem and disgust, which leads to the vicious cycle of more binges and unhealthy emotions.
“Eating disorders are treatable conditions that most often start during adolescence. The sooner an eating disorder is diagnosed and treated, the greater the chances of recovery. It is important to bear in mind that eating disorders very often change over time so a patient who primarily presented with anorexia and restricted their food intake can transition to become a binge eater,” notes our expert.
Eating disorders, if left untreated, can be deadly. Dr Gardenia says: “It is important to prevent these disorders by spreading awareness. Society needs to reduce pressures, especially on women, to be thin. Young girls must be taught to accept different body sizes and place more emphasis on personality than on appearance.”
There is no single cause of eating disorders. They could be due to intense stress, grieving, childhood experiences, genetics and self-esteem issues. The road to recovery starts by recognising the problem and choosing to seek help to overcome it.