Depression: The Gender Gap

Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression

Associate Provost and Professor of Psychology Sarah Murnen has first-hand experience with students struggling with depression and other psychological problems. Students in her women's studies courses have disclosed psychological problems, including depression, and some have reported attempted suicides. One such student left campus for a while. "It turned out there were a lot of things wrong in her life, including an abusive boyfriend, a really bad family situation, and probably some sexual abuse in her past," Murnen says.

The student, who was later readmitted, worked with a counselor on campus and also confided in Murnen. "She started thinking about the role of men in her life," Murnen says. "Why did she need a relationship so badly that she was with this guy who was abusive? She broke up with him, got much more serious about school and what her education meant to her. She graduated from Kenyon and is now in graduate school."

At Kenyon and other schools across the country, women like Murnen's student are disproportionally affected by depression. One in five women can expect to develop clinical depression during their lifetime, and women are more than twice as likely as men to experience clinical depression, according to the National Mental Health Association. Although there is no clear-cut reason for this gender gap, some research suggests that biological differences in women may lead to depression. But hormonal changes and genetics aren't the whole story.

"There are a number of ways in which women's lives are different from men's that might play into this gender gap in depression, especially in adolescence," explains Murnen, who has taught at Kenyon since 1988. "I'm not trying to saying that biology doesn't play a part in this, but I think the bigger explanation has to do with the power differences between men and women."

Relationships with men, for example, are often an important way for adolescent girls to create their identity. They may even give up their own emotional needs to have a relationship. This "self-silencing" is associated with depression.

"If you don't have the power in the relationship, it's going to define you rather than allowing you to express yourself," Murnen says. "A boyfriend, who's trained to be different emotionally, really might not provide everything the girl needs emotionally."

This power dynamic isn't confined to adolescence. Married women have higher rates of depression than unmarried women, with rates peaking during the childbearing years. But marriage decreases the risk of depression in men. "It probably happens because there is a loss of power that results for women that doesn't happen for men," Murnen says.

Other gender differences include body dissatisfaction and sexual victimization rates, both of which are higher for women and associated with depression.

"It doesn't mean that men don't suffer," Murnen says. "Men have higher rates of alcoholism. Some people say that's the male version of depression because men are trained not to be so emotional. So they express it in a different way."

As an undergraduate at Bowling Green State University in the early eighties, Murnen had personal experiences with objectification and mild sexual harassment without the feminist perspective she now teaches her students. "I don't think I understood that there were cultural pressures until I studied some of these things in graduate school," she explains. "There were certain ways in which I was somewhat powerless in college."

While she believes women have made strides in the past two decades, especially in terms of employment opportunities, Murnen recognizes that some of the fundamental cultural links to women's depression still exist.

"Young women today have some more advantages, but in other ways I don't think they're advantaged at all," she says. "The emphasis on appearance is greater than it's ever been. The sexual objectification of women is greater than it's ever been. That's not leading to more equality."

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