How to end gender discrimination

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mental illness is associated with a significant burden of morbidity and disability.

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Despite being common, mental illness is under-diagnosed by doctors. Doctors identify less than half of those who meet diagnostic criteria for psychological disorders. Patients, also appear reluctant to seek professional help. Only two in every five people experiencing a mood, anxiety or substance use disorder seek assistance in the year of the onset of the disorder.

Gender disparities and mental health

Overall rates of psychiatric disorder are almost identical for men and women but striking gender differences are found in the patterns of mental illness.

Gender is a critical determinant of mental health and mental illness. Gender determines the differential power and control men and women have over the socio-economic determinants of their mental health and lives, their social position, status and treatment in society and their susceptibility and exposure to specific mental health risks. The following WHO data shows evidence:

• Depressive disorders account for close to 41.9% of the disability from neuropsychiatric disorders among women compared to 29.3% among men.

• Leading mental health problems of older adults are depression, organic brain syndromes and dementias. A majority are women.

• An estimated 80% of 50 million people affected by violent conflicts, civil wars, disasters, and displacement are women and children.

• At least one in five women suffer rape or attempted rape in their lifetime.

Up to 20% of those attending primary healthcare in developing countries suffer anxiety and/or depressive disorders. In most centres, these patients are not recognised and therefore not treated. Communication between health workers and women patients is extremely authoritarian in many countries, making a woman’s disclosure of psychological and emotional distress difficult, and often stigmatised. Organised by CES University, through its College of Medicine (Colombia), the 5th International Conference on Women’s Mental Health highlighted advances in the understanding of mental diseases, its approach and treatment, from a gender perspective.

Women have different processes to become ill and heal, as shown in lectures by several speakers who presented the differences that lie behind the way in which a woman´s brain functions with respect to a man´s brain. Interestingly, one presentation concerned the invitation extended by the Renault Car Company to have a chat in its Medellin headquarters with both male and female employees. The topic ‘Gender equality in the work place’ was very edifying, enriching and supplementary for the work being done by the company through its programme Women and Renault. Guest lecturer Dr Donna Stewart is a UN consultant for topics related to women’s rights. As an expert, she highlighted the work undertaken by the car company relating to women’s work participation and openness to more equality.

An interesting resource

The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Women’s Mental Health has an interesting and useful website ( provides a range of current information, which includes discussion of new research findings in women’s mental health and how such investigations inform day-to-day clinical practice. Despite the growing number of women’s health studies being conducted the clinical implications of such work are frequently controversial, leaving patients with questions regarding the most appropriate path to follow.

The evidence mentioned here suggests the convenience of developing policies and programmes to stop this gender discrimination. A lot of work must be done in several areas and probably decades will be needed to appreciate strong results.


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