Womens Health Week

Women are known for putting others first. But when it comes to your health it is important to prioritise your own needs and speak up when you need support.

While good mental health is essential to the overall health of both men and women, women experience some mental health conditions at higher rates than men.

In fact, around 1 in 5 women in Australia will experience depression and 1 in 3 women will experience anxiety during their lifetime. Women also experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders at higher rates than men.

Depression and anxiety can affect women at any time in their life but there is an increased chance during pregnancy and the year following the birth of a baby. Up to 1 in 10 women experience depression while they are pregnant and 1 in 7 women experience depression during the first year after birth. Anxiety conditions are thought to be as common with many women experiencing both conditions at the same time.

There are a range of ways in which you can care for your mental health to help improve your quality of life for you and the people you love. The important thing to remember is that effective treatments are available and, with the right care, most people recover.

Factors affecting women

Major life transitions such as pregnancy, motherhood and menopause can create physical and emotional stresses for women. Negative life experiences – infertility and perinatal loss, poverty, discrimination, violence, unemployment and isolation – also impact on women's mental health and wellbeing. Unequal economic and social conditions also contribute to women's higher risk of depression. Some of the situations that can contribute to anxiety and depression in women include:

Caring for or supporting others

Over two thirds of primary carers are women, caring for partners, parents and children. While this brings joy to many, managing competing paid and unpaid work demands can have an impact on physical and mental health, financial security and independence.

Relationship breakdown

When a relationship ends, it can bring with it losses in every area of life; financial security, social connections, housing and relationships with children can all be affected. As a result, women who are separated, divorced or widowed are more likely to experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. It is normal to feel upset or sad following a relationship breakdown – or to lose pleasure in your usual activities. When these feelings persist and start to impact your daily life, it is time to talk to someone about how you are feeling and reach out for support.

Violence or abuse

To maintain good mental health and wellbeing, women need to feel safe and respected in their relationships. One in four Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner1 and one in four has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner. Of those women who experience violence, more than half have children in their care.

Experiences of violence and assault as well as emotional, physical and sexual abuse have devastating effects on women’s health and wellbeing. This can include depression and anxiety, drug and alcohol misuse, suicidal thoughts or attempts and post-traumatic stress. Often, due to fear and a belief there are no other options, women stay in relationships that cause them significant pain and distress. It is important for people to remember that they are not responsible for the abusive behaviour of others, and that help is available.

Discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity Women who identify as lesbian, bisexual and other sexualities experience higher rates of anxiety and depression than heterosexual women. These woman are at greater risk of suicide and self-harm if they experience discrimination, exclusion, bullying and abuse. The risk of mental health issues can also increase if they do not have family or community support.

Transgender women and other gender diverse people have also been shown to experience high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide risk as a result of experiencing barriers to support, discrimination, and exclusion.

Infertility and perinatal loss

For many women, the journey to motherhood includes infertility and miscarriage or stillbirth. For some, the desire to be a mother is not fulfilled. Around one in six couples face infertility, as many as one in four identified pregnancies end in miscarriage4, and one in 100 births result in stillbirth or newborn death. These losses can have a devastating impact on the emotional and mental wellbeing of women who have a strong desire to be a mum. Grief associated with these losses is mostly private and not often acknowledged. Without acknowledgement or support, a women can be left feeling lost and alone which can further impact their mental health.

Speaking to someone you trust is critical in maintaining mental health during the stresses and pain of infertility and perinatal loss.

Pregnancy, having a baby and becoming a mother (perinatal)

It's not uncommon for women to experience depression and anxiety during pregnancy and after the birth of a baby. Up to 1 in 10 women experience depression while they are pregnant6 and 1 in 7 women experience depression during the first year after birth. Anxiety conditions are thought to be as common with many women experiencing both conditions at the same time. Adjusting to this major life change – as well as coping with the day-to-day challenges of early motherhood – can leave some women more likely to experience depression or anxiety particularly if they've experienced depression or anxiety in the past.

Menopause

Menopause can increase the risk of developing mental health issues. Hormone changes in the years leading to menopause (perimenopause) can cause mood swings and irritability and can contribute to depression and anxiety. Changes in hormonal levels can also result in a range of physical challenges such as hot flushes, night sweats, interrupted sleep patterns and weight gain – all of which can affect mental health.

Menopause can occur at a stage in life where responsibilities and relationships are also under transition. For some, this involves raising young people or supporting adult children to live independently, or caring for older adults. For many this is also a time of increased work opportunities and responsibilities.

Women who experience surgical or early menopause can be at even greater risk of depression. It is important to speak to your doctor about your wellbeing as well as your physical health. Treatment and support is available.

Activities such as eating well and keeping active – and doing the things you enjoy – are key to improving your wellbeing during menopause.

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