Why Is Indian Women’s Mental Health The Last Priority On Everyone’s Mind?

Fear of social stigma means that we tend to hide any issues of Indian women’s mental health until it is too late. This May, Mental Health Month, let’s address this.

Indian women are at the verge of a mental health crisis like never before and need respite, care and space.

A news report claims that more than 20,000 housewives took their lives in India in 2014. This was the year when 5,650 farmers killed themselves in the country.

Why women’s mental health issues?

Gender is often a critical determining factor in mental health and mental illness. Patterns of psychological distress and even psychiatric disorders among women vary from those seen among men. Women exhibit a higher tendency of internalizing disorders while men externalize the same more.

According to surveys and studies by mental health professionals in India, it’s more common for women to be abandoned if diagnosed with a mental illness.

According to a 2016 report by the National Commission for Women, families that willingly abandoned their mentally ill women members most often do so because of huge associated social stigma. Other logistic reasons that influence such decisions more adversely in case of women as compared to men are lack of space in households, inability of caregivers or fear for the safety of the suffering women causing harm to themselves or others living with them.

Depression biggest women’s mental health issue

Unipolar depression, predicted to be the second major cause of global disability by 2020, is two times as common in women.

It is a well-known fact that an estimated 80% of people affected by violent conflicts, civil wars, disasters, and displacement are mostly women and children. India is no different and in addition to these socio-economic and natural factors around two-thirds of married women in India were victims of domestic violence. Depressive disorders cause 41.9% of disability among women compared to 29.3% among men. Even among the elderly those suffering from depression and dementia are mostly women.

Symptoms of depression are common in men and women overall, though women manifest them differently. For instance they often slip into “reverse vegetative” symptoms such as increased appetite and weight gain, which further leads to loss of self-esteem and anxiety disorders, the severity of symptoms of which is again higher in women.

Why is this so gendered?

During their entire lifetime, women are faced with various common life stressors like puberty, menstruation, childbirth and maternity, being primary caretakers for the old and unwell of the family.

In conventional societies like India women are comparatively less empowered due to lesser opportunities of education and employment, and general discrimination and taboos against their sexuality and existence. Even the financially secure and upwardly mobile women fear to cross social demarcations, and thus remain constantly vulnerable on the mental health front.

A research paper in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine states:

“In the Indian scenario, a man is always treated as an asset wherein families try to accommodate men even though with the difficulties and the wife or parents will act as a source of support to them. However, for the women, the situation is entirely different. The widow is abandoned; the divorced one is consistently blamed; the single one is frequently questioned about the illness; and the married women are always shuttled between the family of origin and the family of procreation.”

Women’s mental health is often the least prioritized subject matter in our families. The gender stereotypes in our feudal and patriarchal Indian society get accentuated by discrimination and several restrictions on women.

The clichés like “Great Indian All-sacrificing Motherhood” and “Good Indian Women” who always put others first further leave very little space for Indian women to negotiate and care for their own mental health, and prevent them from putting themselves first ever.

Image source: a still from the movie English Vinglish

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Pooja Priyamvada is a columnist, professional translator and an online content and Social Media consultant.

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