Sex differences in mental illness

When it comes to mental illness, the sexes are different: Women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression, while men tend toward substance abuse or antisocial disorders, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.

Published online in Journal of Abnormal Psychology, the study looked at the prevalence by gender of different types of common mental illnesses.

The researchers also found that women with anxiety disorders are more likely to internalise emotions, which typically results in withdrawal, loneliness and depression. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to externalise emotions, which leads to aggressive, impulsive, coercive and non-compliant behaviour, according to the study. The researchers demonstrated that it was differences in these liabilities, to internalise and to externalise, that accounted for gender differences in prevalence rates of many mental disorders.

The study

Researchers analysed data collected in 2001 and 2002 by a National Institutes of Health survey of 43,093 US residents 18 and older who were civilians and not institutionalised. Of those, 57% were women and 56.9% were white; 19.3% were Hispanic or Latino; 19.1% were African-American; 3.1% Asian, native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders; and 1.6% were American Indian or native Alaskan.

The data were representative of the age, race/ethnicity and gender distributions of the US population in the 2000 Census. Participants answered interview questions. The analysis examined their lifetime mental health history, as well as over the prior 12 months.

The authors cited previous research that found women suffer more than men from depression, because "women ruminate more frequently than men, focusing repetitively on their negative emotions and problems rather than engaging in more active problem solving."

The findings support gender-focused prevention and treatment efforts, the study said. "In women, treatment might focus on coping and cognitive skills to help prevent rumination from developing into clinically significant depression or anxiety," said lead author Nicholas R. Eaton, MA, of the University of Minnesota. "In men, treatment for impulsive behaviours might focus on rewarding planned actions and shaping aggressive tendencies into non-destructive behaviour."

Past research also indicated that women report more neuroticism and more frequent stressful life events than men do before the onset of a disorder, indicating that environmental stressors may also contribute to internalising, the report said. - (EurekAlert!, August 2011)

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