Where is Mental Health’s Feminism?

Your breathing becomes shallow. You can’t get a full breath. The walls close in. You are light headed. Is this what it is like to die?

Your eyes are puffy and swollen from crying. You can’t bear to open them. Your limbs are heavy. Getting out of bed is too much. And what’s the point anyway?

Your stomach growls. The voice in your head growls louder. It used to say soothing things and help you control the day. Now it controls you. But who would you be if it went away?

Your step quickens. You listen to hear if his does too. Your mouth tastes bitter as your system floods with adrenaline. You flinch as a shadow creeps into your peripheral vision. You don’t unclench your fists until the figure passes you, hurrying off to his destination, oblivious to your panic. Will you always be afraid?

Illustration by Kirzart

Illustration by Kirzart

Anxiety, depression, eating-disorders, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are just some of the most common mental illnesses with which women suffer. Women’s rates of depression are twice what they are for men. Although men are more likely to die of suicide, women attempt suicide twice as often. Men’s rate of death by suicide are usually attributed to their higher likelihood to use a gun. Women are three times as likely as men to have an eating disorder, although the perception that this is a upper-class, straight, white women disease is starting to be challenged and leading to help for women of color, LGBTQIA people, and men. Women are almost twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder and when they do, it is more debilitating than for men. PTSD rates are also twice as high in women as men.

I have heard mental health advocates say that mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Anyone no matter their position in our society can have a chemical imbalance that will limit their control over their thoughts, emotions, sensory perceptions, or behavior. That may be true in the strictest sense but there are risk factors for developing certain types of mental illness and there are resources that some have to manage these disorders that others lack. Common risk factors for developing a mental health disorder include poverty, sexual abuse, and caregiver burden. Women are 35% more likely than men to live in poverty in the United States. The vast majority of those women are trans women, immigrants, women of color, or women with disabilities. One out of 6 women are victims of sexual assault, again with the rates even higher for women who are transgender, women of color, or women with disabilities. Women head 80% of single-family households. For every one of these high risk categories that a woman falls into, she is that much more at risk to develop a mental health disorder.

The history of mental illness is disgusting in a variety of ways. Drapetomania, the affliction of a slave trying to run away from their owner, used to be considered a mental illness. Homosexuality was categorized as a mental illness until 1973. Histrionic personality disorder which was only removed from the DSM in 2013, is the most recent version of hysteria which put forth the notion that women suffered a variety of symptoms including the inability to be rational because of their “wandering womb”—their uterus literally wandering throughout their body. Freud, who bizarrely is still taught in psychology programs, changed his assessment of the reports of sexual abuse of women from one of belief to a twisted but more popular theory for the patriarchy—that women wanted these sexual assaults to happen to them so they made it up in their minds. Histrionic personality disorder, diagnosed more frequently in women, is “a pervasive pattern of excessive emotionality and attention seeking.” Unsurprisingly, considering its history, rates of Histrionic personality disorder are associated with childhood trauma.

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At the Women in the World Summit in New York this year, one of the speakers reminded us that in the case of an emergency, we must put our own oxygen masks on before we assist someone else with theirs. I have worked in the behavioral health field for a decade and the number one reason that I hear from women about why they don’t get care for their mental health is because they are too busy caring for someone else. These women are putting on the oxygen masks of their parents, children, partners, friends, bosses and all the while they are suffocating.

One of the biggest struggles for mental health advocates is to get men to admit they have mental health treatment needs. Women often acknowledge their issues but don’t take the time to get the treatment for them. Women are the caregivers of the entire world and rarely caregivers to themselves. We must start allowing women to care for themselves without feeling like they are failing as partners, parents, employees, friends. This Superwoman myth that we use to pump women up may be having some dangerous unintended consequences. We desperately need to spread the message to women that self-care is not selfish, especially when it comes to mental health.

We need to have trauma-informed mental health treatment available and affordable to women. We need mental health providers that speak all the languages that women speak. We need mental health providers who have experiences that are similar to the people who are most vulnerable to mental illness. This means we need to hire and promote women of color, women who are immigrants, women who are queer, women who are trans, women with a variety of physical limitations, women of all faiths. To make this happen we need to make sure our higher education programs are accepting all these women into their programs and hiring professors who fit in these categories too. I guess what I’m saying is, the mental health system needs feminism.

If you need help, please call…

In the US:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): 1-800-931-2237

In the UK:

SupportLine: 01708 765200

Samaritans: Call 116 123 

Papyrus (for people under 35): Call 0800 068 41 41 – Monday to Friday 10am to 10pm, weekends 2pm to 10pm, bank holidays 2pm to 5pm or Text 07786 209697 

Childline (for anyone under 19): Call 0800 1111 – the number won't show up on your phone bill

The Silverline (for older people): Call 0800 4 70 80 90


Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist