Women and Depression
Contrary to popular belief, clinical depression is not a “normal part of being a woman” nor is it a “female weakness.” Depressive illnesses are serious medical illnesses that affect nearly 18 million American adults age 18 and over each year. Depression is a treatable medical illness that can occur in any woman, at any time, and for various reasons regardless of age, race or income.
- Women experience twice the rate of depression as men, regardless of race or ethnic background.
- About one in every eight women can expect to suffer from major, or clinical, depression during their lifetime.
- Researchers suspect that, rather than a single cause, many factors unique to women’s lives play a role in developing depression.
- These factors include: genetic and biological, reproductive, hormonal, abuse and oppression, interpersonal, and certain psychological and personality characteristics.
- Women experience depression at roughly twice the rate of men.
- Boys and girls have the same rate of depression until they reach adolescence.
- Between the ages of 11 and 13, the rate rises sharply for girls. By age 15, girls are twice as likely as boys to have depression, a trend that continues throughout adulthood.
- Many women experience behavioral and physical changes during their menstrual cycle.
- With premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), the changes typically start after the ovaries produce and discharge eggs and the changes become gradually worse until menstruation starts.
- Researchers are exploring how the cyclical rise and fall of hormones, including estrogen, may affect the brain chemistry associated with depressive illness.
- The rates of depression are highest for people who are separated and divorced.
- Depression rates are lowest among the married, although the rates remain higher for women than men.
- Post-pregnancy or post-partum changes can vary from temporary “blues” right after childbirth, to an episode of major depression, to severe, incapacitating depression.
- Studies suggest that women who experience major depression after childbirth often had previous episodes of depression that may not have been diagnosed and treated.
- Being pregnant or having an abortion rarely contributes to higher rates of depression. Women with infertility problems may feel extreme anxiety or sadness, although it is unclear if this contributes to a higher rate of depression.
- For low-income women, the rate of depression among mothers is about 25 percent—double the rate for all women.
- More than half the mothers (52 percent) in a study of 17 Early Head Start programs reported symptoms of depression.
- Elderly women are at a greater risk of major depression than elderly men are.
- About 800,000 men and women are widowed each year. Most of them are older, female, and experience different degrees of depressive symptoms.
- Major depression is highly responsive to treatment.
- There are three well-established types of treatment for clinical depression: medications, psychotherapy, and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). People with major depression tend to do best with a combination of medication and psychotherapy.
- There are also lifestyle changes people can make to improve their health. In particular, there is a growing body of research that supports the use of aerobic exercise as an intervention for mild to moderate depression.
—Written by Christine Lehmann and Ken Duckworth, M.D. April 2008
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The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. NAMI has over 1,100 affiliates in communities across the country who engage in advocacy, research, support, and education. Click here for more information.