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Taking back our narrative: Women and empowerment

by Sam Bennett, LPC and Louis V. Haynes, PsyD

Why are women twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression as men? Why are women the largest group diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? The prevalence rates of these mental health issues as well as experienced trauma heightens even further when examining the experiences of women of color.

Although we consider ourselves feminists and allies, we recognize our being cisgender white males affords us both privilege as well as limitations in our ability to understand the experiences of women, and especially women of color. However, as a proponent of social justice, we also believe that with power and privilege also comes social responsibility. Just as racial/ethnic and sexual minorities need active support from those in positions of power, we believe men are socially responsible to acknowledge and address the many disparities women experience including health, discrimination, and income inequality.

So, what could possibly be causing these vast disparities in the mental health diagnoses between cisgender men and women? Historically, science (men) would often attempt to explain this through innate, biological differences between men and women. Even Freud argued that children saw females as the inherently inferior sex; boys were deeply afraid of being castrated by their fathers and girls envied penises and blamed their mothers for not having one. Freud had no recognition of gender as a social construct and went as far as to say that “biology is destiny” when it come to men and women psychosexual differences.

But our current understanding of gender and sexuality has evolved considerably since the days of Freud. Similar to the removal of homosexuality (as it was referred to at the time) from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1973, being gay was misguidedly perceived as the primary cause of psychopathology and correlated with depression, anxiety, and suicidality. What was consistently overlooked were the experiences of gay men and women in society that would invariably result in disparities in mental health. When gay individuals had supportive social networks and families, their “impairments in major life areas” disappeared, which is the qualifying requirement for all mental health diagnoses in DSM. Thus, to look for innate biological differences in explaining health disparities between men and women would be equivalent of having a diagnosis in the DSM of “Female Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified." It assigns blame to women for their problems, rather than to the society that constructs them.

Fortunately, modern science (including sociology) continues to improve in our understanding of higher incidences of mental health challenges for women. The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement that “gender specific risk factors for mental health disorders that disproportionately affect women include: gender-based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, low income and income inequality, low or subordinate social status and rank, and unremitting responsibility for the care of others.” In addition, when the gender identity of women intersects with other aspects of identity, such as race, sexual orientation and socio-economic status, these risk factors and inequities are even further exacerbated.

One crucial protective factor and an important piece that is imperative to the mental health of women is Empowerment. Empowerment, by definition, is the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights. Progress has been made in terms of empowerment of women, and this includes mental health care. Additionally, in the past few years, we have seen a huge shift when it comes to women courageously speaking up and challenging the status quo. Movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp has helped many women who before felt left behind and invalidated, to now feel heard, and more importantly, believed. These movements have resulted in real policy change, and addresses the very culture of oppression of women, which historically has had minimal systemic accountability.

While progress has undeniably been made in some areas, the work continues in so many others. In July 2020, the murder rate of transgender women had already surpassed the total murder counts of trans women in 2018 and 2019. Real change is needed to curve these figures, both in policy and in culture.

As therapists and feminists, we believe the field of psychology has a social responsibility to change how we talk about women’s mental health issues. Rather than seeing women’s rising mental health issues as individualized, or biological, we need to see the pain and suffering as a result of a system of oppression and inequality. We need to empower women, rather than blame or shame them for their experiences. Underneath many of the negative messages women receive on a daily basis, there is a self, who is far more complex and realized than the stories women have been taught to believe. We need empower women to take back their narratives of themselves and their lives and what it means to be a woman.

Therapy is one venue where such empowerment can occur. Empowerment-work in therapy can help us work through our pain through a compassionate lens and listen to what it is trying to tell us. Our pain can help us identify and decide what is really important to us. We can then commit to specific actions and engage in a more meaningful life, which embodies these values. This is just one example of how therapy can be beneficial for women’s mental health, particularly when it comes to empowerment.

Speaking of empowerment, a Chicago-based Podcast, Advanced TV-Herstory not only believes in the empowerment of women, it lives it. Advanced TV-Herstory is all about supporting women, in entertainment, as well as bringing the stories of these women, to empower and inspire others. Their podcast has been connecting the dots between Feminism, and TV, to American politics and culture for over 5 years. Check out their latest Podcast, with special guest Margaret Cho here below!

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