Note: The research and statistics I discuss in this article do not include transgender and gender non-conforming people. The mental health of these groups is usually very different and much more complex.
For this article, I will primarily be focusing on how gender biased causes under-diagnosis in the mental health field. This is, of course, not the only way that gender bias effects mental health treatment. This article is merely one piece of a broader conversation.
What is under-diagnosis?
In order for us to understand how gender bias affects mental health treatment, first we should get a good idea of what exactly under-diagnosis is. Medically, under-diagnosis is a failure to recognize or correctly diagnose a condition, especially in a significant proportion of patients. In other terms, under-diagnosis occurs when medical professionals diagnose a condition significantly less than that condition occurs. Under-diagnosis usually indicates a disparity in research done on how conditions effect different groups. Men and women are each under-diagnosed in different mental health issues. Lack of research in how mental health conditions effect men and women separately leads to gender disparity in mental health treatment.
Under-diagnosis in women
There is a massive gender disparity when it comes to autism diagnosis in women. We notice autism about 4.5x more in boys. Part of this is because boys are more susceptible to autism. But a large chunk of this mental health disparity is because autism presents differently in girls. Autistic girls tend to be better at masking, and tend to be more social than autistic boys. Lots of autistic girls don’t get diagnosed until their teenage years, and don’t get the assistance of early intervention. Lack of intervention leads to poorly adjusted autistic women. Women are also less likely to get diagnosed with more “explosive” emotional disorders, often because of gender stereotypes. Because women are the “emotional” sex, it is more likely for professionals to write off emotional outbursts.
Under-diagnosis in men
Because men are usually less likely to experience certain mental health issues, under-diagnosis can be a tricky thing to talk about. But what we do know is that men are much less likely to get diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and panic disorders. This disparity is definitely related to gender bias, as suicide is a prominent cause of death among middle aged men across the board. This is a strong example of how misogyny also hurts men. The stereotype that men are emotionless and always strong in the face of struggle is damaging to the lives of young men across the board. Men are also less likely to seek the psychological assistance they need. Mental health stigmas are another thing that lead to under-diagnosis. If men are less likely to seek help for their illnesses, they are much less likely to receive a diagnosis.
It is difficult to suggest concrete reform to tackle this problem from outside of the industry. The first step would obviously be to increase the amount of research done into how mental health issues effect genders differently. Under-diagnosis of autism in women is due to clear lack of information. We will also need to work on eliminating gender bias in mental health professionals. When dealing with under-diagnosis in men, things aren’t so simple. Resolving this issue will ultimately involve the ending of stigma against metal illness, which will be a very long journey. In our own lives, we can encourage men that we know to look for help when when they need it, and to encourage close friends to express themselves freely regardless of gender.