Life may not always be fair, but could inequality among the sexes be affecting our mental health? On World Mental Health Day, MOJEH investigates how society’s expectations of women can be damaging, what it can lead to, and what we can do to stop problems before they start.
Women in the Gulf, and all around the world, are facing more mental health challenges than ever before. The unprecedented worldwide changes as a result of the pandemic that have happened since early 2020 are contributing to increased pressure on women as a group, but those who are attempting to juggle work and home life are at a particular disadvantage.
“Covid-19 has had, and is still having, a global detrimental impact on all of us: economically, physically, cognitively and psychologically,” says Marina Hakimian, clinical and educational psychologist at Dubai’s Thrive Wellness Centre. “Women were more impacted than men due to their expected role of being the secondary income maker, and their role as caretakers of the children, demanding their presence at home. Many women lost their jobs, and those that didn’t had the tendency and the obligation to resign to commit to the family’s demands. This increased their levels of stress, fear, and the feeling of loss. This has created a sense of inadequacy in women, who returned home to become full-time mothers and educators.”
Through her work, mindfulness and meditation teacher Helen Williams of Mindful ME has seen the impact of this situation in real time. “The ongoing uncertainty and lack of ‘safety’ has had a devastating impact on the overall mental health of women, with many finding themselves imprisoned by the demands of educating, feeding and entertaining their children, while holding responsible positions in their careers,” she says. “Homeschooling has become a nightmare for many, and the inability to experience freedom from these demands has taken a huge toll on family relationships. Many women are essentially full-time caregivers with no respite, while at the same time holding down full-time careers from their homes. Being trapped, with little or no support, has severely impacted their self-worth, creating desperation, depression, anger and apathy.”
“Some women have reported frequent instances of helplessness, anxiety, fear, dread and grief, while many relationships have collapsed under the strain of uncertainty. Unrealistic expectations, a lack of community support, and the inability to travel to see other family members, and the loneliness that is the outcome of a great deal of isolation, have also impacted many women in ways they find difficult to comprehend, resulting in shame, withdrawal and the loss of personal respect. A great deal of the women I meet are emotionally shut down and operating on survival mode, with it difficult for them to find a way out.”
The theme of the World Health Organisation’s 2021 World Mental Health Day – which takes place on October 10 – is ‘mental health in an unequal world’. And those divisions are becoming increasingly visible, from the widening of the poverty gap to the unbalanced expectations of women. “Carrying the mental load can be quite a burden for women’s health, both mental and physical,” says Dr Lavina Ahuja, counselling psychologist at the German Neuroscience Center, Dubai. “The chronic stress associated with it can lead to burnout, which occurs when people feel significantly overwhelmed, drained, exhausted and unable to cope.”
“Neurologically speaking, research shows that burnout leads to the enlargement of the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotions. This makes it harder to regulate negative emotions, leaving people more prone to mood changes and heightening their response to stress.” Stress is the common factor in disorders that overwhelmingly affect women – anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder being amongst the most common. So what are the signs we need to be aware of that can signal an impending mental health problem? “The most important red flags include clear and observable deterioration in the levels of functioning at home, work and in the community,” says Hakimian. “When someone feels they stopped enjoying hobbies and activities they enjoyed in the past, when work performance is impacted, when sadness and worry preoccupy one’s thoughts and impacts their behaviour, it is time to consult a mental health professional.”
So how can women expect to be treated once they realise there is a problem? There are as many approaches to the treatment of mental health crises as there are triggers. “Different conditions are treated differently, with medication, lifestyle changes, and most importantly with stress management techniques,” says Dr Ahuja. “Medication and psychotherapy are important to treat any psychological condition, along with conditions that are triggered by stress, such as IBS.”
In recent years, there has also been an increase in seeking out alternative therapies that may aid traditional treatments, or even halt a dip in mental health before it starts. “The practice of mindfulness, alongside adequate support from the mindfulness community, offers a safe place to identify with others in the same position in a judgement-free environment,” says Williams. “Proven strategies for managing difficult thoughts and emotions can provide a very welcome relief, while offering mindful compassionate support and care. Alongside medical care, the practice of mindfulness is often experienced as a sound, practical antidote to anxiety, fear and uncertainty, helping women to gain meaningful tools to manage their daily stress.” Women, more likely to be the main carer for their children and elderly or disabled relatives, are at an increased risk of anxiety and depression as a result. Women are also more likely to live in poverty than men, which has a drastic effect on mental health.
Levelling the gender and socio-economic playing field can greatly reduce the burden on women, negating the ‘normal’ gendered increased mental load and having a positive effect on women’s mental health. “In my experience, many women suffer from very poor self-image and low self-worth, creating self-loathing and very negative self-talk,” says Williams. “I’ve noticed they often endure long periods of self-isolation and self-punishment, and struggle with worrying and depression. Pressure to be successful partners, loving parents and be career-driven, while coming from a place of such low self-esteem, can set up crippling anxiety, which then leads to cycles of addiction, with food, prescription medications and binge-shopping as ways of comforting and self-soothing. All of these factors have become highly magnified by the fears and uncertainty of Covid and all the restrictions.”
The problems faced by women are complex and ingrained in society. But according to Hakimian, with a little consideration, we have the power to help each other through dark times. “For once, let us simplify the importance of mental health and how we can be there for one another,” she says. “Human beings seek connection and thrive through making meaningful relationships, so broadening our support system of family, friends and colleagues can create opportunities for human engagement. Open communication, the sharing of personal experiences, relating to one another’s daily challenges or sharing one’s joys diminishes feelings of isolation. People want to be heard, they need to hear that others care about them, and they need to feel important, recognised and valued. If we put ourselves in the shoes of others, the world would be a much better place.”
Photography by: Chantelle Dosser for Louis Vuitton