Gender and Mental Health

By Ella, Women’s Center Intern

As an HCWC intern, I spend much of my time trying to create events to educate others, so it’s always a wonderful surprise when I find myself learning just as much as everyone else in the room. This is exactly what happened during “Healthy Identities: The Intersections of Gender and Mental Health”, a conversation led by Professor Mary Ruggie from the Kennedy School.

Professor Ruggie began the conversation by showing us an image familiar to many of us in the room: a bar graph comparing depression and alcoholism rates by gender. According to this study, men are half as likely to be depressed as women yet almost three times as likely to suffer from alcoholism. This information comes from a government run survey conducted on over 40,000 people. At a first glance, it appeared as though a person’s gender heavily influences what types of mental health disorders ze is susceptible to.

But then Professor Ruggie showed us the depression question on the survey, and asked if we noticed anything. Participants had been asked to check off statements that they felt applied to them, and if they checked of five or more they were considered to be depressed. But we were immediately struck by the gendered nature of these statements. For example, one of them contained the word “pregnant,” which I would imagine makes it very unlikely that a male-identified person would check off that box. Notions of gender were already built into the test itself.


We then looked at the alcoholism questions. According to this test, alcoholism is defined as drinking five or more drinks on one occasion on over five of the past thirty days. But there’s an immediate problem with this definition—men and women process alcohol differently. Five shots to a woman is a lot more alcohol than five shots to a man. So of course it appears as though men have greater alcoholism levels than women.

At a first glance, the survey seemed to confirm our gendered notions of mental health, when in reality the results were skewed by pre-existing gender stereotypes built into the survey itself. Depression and alcoholism are actually highly correlated, and Professor Ruggie suggested that perhaps alcoholism is a socially acceptable way for a man to express depression and visa versa.

As a (sort of) stats major, this event reminded me of how important it is to question where numbers come from. Politicized and gendered assertions can easily pose under the guise of science and objectivity, so it is essential to continue to question our assumptions and keep our minds open and alert.



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