Seema is 62 and lives in Mumbai. Till about 16-17 years ago Seema was a vivacious person with an enviable education, who had chosen to remain unmarried. The turning point in her life came when she decided to live alone in a secluded place for a few years. At first, she felt homesick. This was followed by acute loneliness until one day she was found screaming and weeping. Seema spent two days in a ward for the mentally ill before her family reached her. She was 47 and she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Seema is almost cured thanks to the medicines and her family’s unflinching support. But there are many women who suffer mental breakdowns – mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
The book, ‘Psychology of Women’ devotes an entire chapter to this issue. It says that there are large gender differences in patterns of the rates of mental disorders, the largest gender gap being in anxiety and mood disorders (WHO 2000, 2004). It further adds that although genetic and biological factors are in some way responsible for the risk and expression of the mental diseases in women, the reasons are also strongly rooted in social conditions like hunger, lack of economic resources and gender based violence such as sexual and physical abuse.
Another contributing factor is exposure to adverse life events. As Dr. Geetha Desai, Associate Professor at the Department of Psychiatry, NIMHANS, Bangalore, puts it, “If the woman has a history of vulnerability, that is, she has a biological or genetic predisposition to a mental disease, then there are more chances of her suffering from that disease, given a set of environmental factors. For instance, a woman with a history of mild depression has greater chance of developing post partum depression.”
Women suffer more often from mood disorders like depression and anxiety. These can be temporary but if sleep and appetite are affected leading to over or under-eating then the condition is termed clinical depression where a person’s mood is pervasively low.
According to Dr. Desai, oral contraceptives, menstrual disorders, menopause, hypothyrodism or relationship problems are just some of the factors that could lead to depression when a woman is vulnerable.
Depression can develop during the postpartum period of a new mother. It can be for a short period, commonly referred to as ‘baby blues’ or can continue for long, with the feeling of tiredness, unexplained weeping and apathy towards the surroundings and the infant being the accompanying symptoms. In severe cases the mother may even feel suicidal or aggressive towards the baby.
Another common cause of depression in women is obesity. Take Bangalore-based Rita, 38. Though extremely talented, she has studied only till the tenth standard. Today, she is battling a mild depression. She is married for two years now but has not been able to have a baby.
Depression apart, women also commonly suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and disassociative disorders or hysteria as it was called earlier. Equally common in men and women, they are a cry for help. It is a physical manifestation of the disorder in the brain. As in possession disorders where a person believes herself to be a goddess when she visits a temple. This state can become continuous and needs help.
Treatment for post partum depression, Dr. Harish reveals, consists of anti-natal check ups, medicines and electro convulsive therapy where the brain is stimulated by the passage of electric current through it. It is done under anaesthesia. Depression and mood disorders are tackled with medication, psychotheraphy and cognitive behaviour therapy, where a person is treated based on his emotions and behaviour. Dr Gangadhar is of the opinion that “with or without causes, depression can be treated. There are medications that are effective as well as therapies like yoga. Patients may choose either drug or no-drug treatment approaches.
Stresses of modern life may trigger mental illnesses in women, but what is essential is that there is awareness about when to seek help. Indian society is conservative. Hence even conditions that can be cured during the early stages are often neglected till it becomes too late. And of course “along with medications and various kinds of therapy, it is a close knit family and its support that pulls out an individual from the darkness of mental ill health and makes them well again,” concludes Dr. Prabha Chandra, Professor of Psychiatry, NIMHANS.