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Why is depression more common in women?

Women have significantly higher rates of depression than men. All in all, about 5% to 6% of women currently have a depression diagnosis, whereas only around 3% of men do.

Noticing this discrepancy opens up an opportunity to explore many facets of the mental health field: How much do biological differences account for trends in mental health care? How do societal norms and stigma impact the way professionals treat those of specific genders?

Let's dive into these questions and try to find some truth in a topic that is often mischaracterized by myths.

Skip to a section on depression in women:

Signs of Depression in Women

Theory #1: Underdiagnosis in Men

Theory #2: Social Factors

Theory #3: Biological Factors

Therapy for Depression in Austin: Williamsburg Therapy Group

First, a note on gender. The majority of this article will appropriately refer to women as anyone who identifies as a woman, regardless of birth-assigned sex. When applicable, the term "female-assigned" will be applied to refer to those assigned female at birth but who do not necessarily identify as women now.

Signs of Depression in Women

Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions in the world. It's estimated that nearly 280 million people in the world have depression, with most of them being women.

Depression in women is characterized by:

  • Chronic fatigue with no discernible physical cause
  • Apathy in hobbies or activities that are normally pleasurable
  • Mood swings; irritability
  • Feeling "empty"; emotionless
  • Changes in appetite

Note that depression is not the same as transient sadness or even long-term sadness resulting from life circumstances. While certain events can trigger depression, it is characterized by very real biological changes in the brain. This separates depression, a DSM-5-cataloged disorder, from sadness, an emotion.

If you think you may have depression, first reach out to your primary care doctor. Some physical conditions, like a thyroid problem, can cause symptoms that are nearly identical to depression.

Once you and your doctor have ruled out physical causes, it's time to talk to a mental health professional. Medications and talk therapy can be very effective for eliminating, or reducing the symptoms of, depression and other mental health disorders.

Definition Template (14)

Theory #1: Underdiagnosis in Men

The first theory as to why women suffer from depression more often than men is that they actually don't.

This theory posits that cultural and societal norms, stereotypes, and gender-role expectations get in the way of assessing the true comparative numbers of depression between genders.

Let's break it down.

We know from the data that women are more likely to seek help for their mental health than men. Approximately twice as many women as men go to therapy, speak with a psychiatrist, or reach out about mental health concerns.

This tracks fairly closely with the discrepancy we see in diagnosis rates of depression: ~6% for women compared to ~3% for men.

It sounds like we nailed it on the head, right? Nope.

This is a great example of how people can find a seemingly strong correlation between one statistic and another, and then use that connection to draw incorrect and often harmful conclusions. In order to find the truth, we have to dig a little deeper.

Meta-analysis is a method of data analysis in science that collects information from many sources, adjusts for differences in how the data was collected, and then arrives at a (theoretically) stronger conclusion about what's really going on.

When we do a meta-analysis on the rates of depression diagnosis in women vs. those of men, we find that, on a patient-by-patient basis, women are still twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression as men.

We should absolutely continue to work towards destigmatizing men's mental health - but it's not the reason for the discrepancy in depression between women and men.

Theory #2: Social Factors

Another common theory for the higher prevalence of depression in women vs. men is that gender inequality, civil rights differences, and society-implemented gender role expectations are to blame.

We know that sexism against women is, unfortunately, alive and well, so it makes intuitive sense that this would have an effect on depression rates in women.

Except that, according to the data, it doesn't.

Again, meta-analysis comes into play here. A study of depression rates in women across the world found that, surprisingly, differences in civil rights and societal oppression against women had virtually no effect on the difference in depression rates in women vs. men.

This is startling, but believing science means believing it even when it surprises us.

We must, by exclusion, look to other factors to explain the discrepancy.

Theory #3: Biological Factors

Another leading theory about why women are more commonly diagnosed with depression comes down to biological factors.

Those who were assigned female at birth have different hormonal processes and landscapes than those who were assigned male at birth.

For example, female-assigned people who become pregnant undergo many hormonal changes that can lead to perinatal depression, postpartum depression, and more.

It's also theorized that having more systemic or maintained estrogen may contribute to higher levels of depression by heightening the brain's sensitivity to depression triggers like interpersonal conflict, relationships, and life circumstances. These biological factors, under meta-analysis, do appear to account for the majority of the difference between rates of depression in female-assigned vs. male-assigned people.

Realistically, there are probably several reasons that contribute to the discrepancy. While biological reasons account for much of it, it would be scientifically irresponsible to fully throw out societal and cultural reasons.

As always, we need to do more research on the brain and mental health in general before arriving at any conclusions.

Therapy for Depression in Austin: Williamsburg Therapy Group

If you feel as though you may have depression or if you need treatment for depression in Austin, Williamsburg Therapy Group's team of expert depression psychologists is here to help.

With a convenient and beautiful therapeutic space on South Lamar, we have the experience and expertise needed to put you on the path to healing.

Schedule an appointment online or give us a call to let our patient coordinator do the work of finding the right therapist for you.

Feeling better may be closer than you think.

Book a Therapy Session in Austin Today

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