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Why It's Important To Address the Mental Health Needs Of Women While men and women are afflicted equally by mental illnesses, there are differences in the ways these disorders manifest in both genders.

By Dr. Prakriti Poddar

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Mental illnesses constitute one-sixth of all health-related disorders with India accounting for nearly 15 per cent of the global mental and neurological disorder burden. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 7.5 per cent of the Indian population suffers from some form of mental disorders currently with the figure set to rise to 20 per cent in the near future. While men and women are afflicted equally by mental illnesses, there are differences in the ways these disorders manifest in both genders. Evidence shows that women tend to internalize their emotions and hence end up becoming more prone to anxiety and depression. At the same time, men tend to externalize their conditions and turn more prone to disorders such as substance use. This, along with the significant impact of hormonal changes on women's bodies and minds, is the reason gender can be a critical determinant of mental health.

While biological factors are important, one cannot ignore the role of socio-economic factors on mental health issues. A patriarchal society brings with it subservient status of daughters and daughter-in-laws at home, preference for the male child, practice of dowry, lower educational status of women, strict moral code of conduct for females, and pre-defined primary roles of women such as childbearing and child rearing. Also, women are expected to consider marriage as a sacrosanct union even if they are subjected to domestic violence and are expected to make efforts for reconciliation rather than for separation or divorce. Aggression and violence against women are another troublesome reality, making women highly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse in different settings, be it homes, workplaces or public spaces. According to WHO, one rape is reported every 15 minutes in India.

These biological and social factors have an important bearing on the mental health of women. This is why it is important for women to look after their mental health as they are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and depression.

Making help accessible

Unfortunately, to a large extent Indian society is plainly not prepared to help women with mental health issues. In a country where mental illness is still a matter of stigma, the most important effort needed is to throw the taboo out of mental health and empower women (and men) to speak up and seek help.

We need initiatives to make psychiatric or counseling help easily accessible to women. The government must make mental healthcare an important part of the general healthcare framework with hospitals regularly organizing mental health check up camps just like they organize full body check-up camps. General practitioners and specialist physicians must liaise and interact more with psychiatrists and psychologists to discuss patient care and identify disease like physical manifestation of ill mental health. India is also facing a shortage of psychiatrists with the ratio being 0.75 per 100,000 which can be increased by offering incentives to students who opt for this as their career choice as it will significantly enable people to get more help. Easily accessible mental health help lines, counseling centres at schools, universities as well as offices can play key roles in preventing self harm among women subjected to trauma.

Building social support groups

A very crucial element in addressing mental health issues in both women and men is the existence of a strong social support network. People with supportive families, strong ties with siblings and friends tend to better deal with mental illnesses compared with those who do not have a strong support structure.

It is important therefore to build social support groups for women to engage, empower and encourage them into speaking and seeking help. Social support groups where they come together to discuss their lives and issues will help them feel that they are not alone as well as boost their self esteem with them realizing they have control over their own choices and can always reach out to others. Negative thoughts that result in ill-mental health grow twice as loud when we are alone which is why women must actively seek support groups as well as take the initiative to start one if there isn't a support group in their vicinity.

Self-care is important

Educating women about the need to care for their mental health is equally necessary. Women should reduce the use of social media for psychological wellbeing as depression and feelings of loneliness tend to increase among people who spend a lot of time on Facebook and Instagram giving birth to the compulsion to check their mobile phone.

They must always find someone to talk to as unloading what is weighing on their mind will make them feel lighter and happier. Direct communication helps people with mental illness heal faster as they are not actually looking for a solution but listening ears and empathy. Compassion can be obtained only from a positive interaction which tells the person you understand and gives them a sense of hope that life can be better.

Adopt practices like yoga and meditation to keep the mind, body and spirit aligned towards holistic wellbeing, strategic intervention to engage in when dealing with high pressure situation will ensure you always have an outlet to calm yourself.

Dr. Prakriti Poddar

Director, Poddar Wellness Ltd., and Managing Trustee of the Poddar Foundation

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