Gender Gap in Spotting Depression

How alike are men and women, and how do they differ? There is a question for the ages. One bit of research seems to indicate that when it comes to mental health, men have more trouble admitting among themselves that something is amiss.

Faced with identical symptoms in each gender, men are more ready to recognize depression in women than they are in men says one British study. This could be the result of gender stereotyping or misperceptions about the condition, but, in either case, the study points to a need for more mental health education.

The British study provided male and female participants with written vignettes in which two characters (a man and a woman) are described as having the same symptoms. Each one wakes up with a feeling of heaviness that lasts through the day. Neither one finds enjoyment in life and both are finding it difficult to stay focused. Both of them have felt this way for a couple of weeks. After reading the scenarios, participants were asked if either the man or the woman was suffering from a mental illness and, if so, whether they would recommend seeking help.

Responses showed a marked gender link. Men and women who read the study vignette both felt that the woman described in the story was depressed. However, men were far less apt to describe the man in the story as depressed despite the fact that his symptoms were exactly the same as the woman’s. And while both men and women thought that the woman’s case was pitiable and deserving of compassion, men were far more ready to recommend she seek out professional help.

Thus men were less able to recognize depression in men but were more ready to suggest women get help. Part of the reluctance to recommend getting help had to do with general attitudes about mental health treatment and psychiatry as a science. The study revealed negative attitudes toward mental health professionals along with what was described as an anti-science bias among the participants. This poses an educational challenge for mental health care providers in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, there is plenty to fuel further research. Why, if a man and woman share exact symptoms, is a woman more to be pitied? The study participants also felt that the woman’s symptoms would be harder to treat, but why? Furthermore, what makes men more hesitant to admit to depression?

As is true with physical health, there are times when gender influences mental health. Nonetheless, just as diabetes or heart disease or cancer is the same once diagnosed, mental illness is present in men and women and requires the same attention.

There is still hope.

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