Women suffer depression more than men — a poignant report last week suggests why

One morning at dawn earlier this year, Sarah Johnson jumped in front of a southbound train at London’s Victoria station. She was a 36-year-old Belgravia lawyer and mother of three small children, according to the Westminster coroner’s report last week.

No one can know Sarah’s exact state of mind, or what troubled her to the point that she took her own life, or what might have saved her.

Though I never met Sarah, at times it feels as if I had. The world she inhabited of hard-working professional mothers was also my world. In 1997, I was a reporter for The Times with two small children at home and a husband who had a demanding job as a junior banker.

Overwhelmed with the conflicting demands of work and family, I was hit, seemingly out of nowhere, by a depressive episode so serious that I went to hospital.

Like Sarah, I felt then as if death would be a favourable alternative to the physical and psychological pain I was experiencing. Unlike Sarah, I was fortunate enough to recover.

Depression is a complicated, terrifying and debilitating illness not easily attributed to any one cause or glib explanations. The Royal College of Psychiatrists lists seven possible triggers on its website.

But in the case of Sarah Johnson, her own parting words and a statement from her psychiatrist, Dr Neil Brener, seem to attribute her desperation to an overwhelming sense of guilt over her performance as a wife and mother.

‘Her main thought was that she had let everyone down and how she had messed everything up for her husband and children,’ Dr Brener said.

Sarah’s story serves to remind us of three things. First that suffering from clinical depression means struggling in the grips of a serious, life-threatening condition, very different from ordinary human unhappiness.

Second, that mental illness doesn’t discriminate — a privileged life is not synonymous with either happiness or a privileged health.

But thirdly, and perhaps most poignantly, Dr Brener’s account reminds us that there are a very specific set of pressures faced almost exclusively by women, and mothers in particular, that may contribute to the fact that women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men.

While women have rightly made huge strides in the workplace, the same is not true in many homes. Domestic responsibilities, by which I don’t just mean childcare and housekeeping but the million tiny acts of kindness, arduousness and remembering that make up life at home are still largely undertaken by women, many of whom balance these obligations with full-time jobs.

I have recovered, and now manage my own depression using an armory of approaches ranging from medication and therapy to poetry and prayer.

Given that women are more vulnerable to this illness, perhaps we need not just more understanding from employers about the pressures women face balancing work and home, but a second revolution in the domestic sphere to match that which has happened in the workplace.

Rachel Kelly’s memoir Black Rainbow about her own battle with depression and how she recovered was published in April last year by Hodder & Stoughton. Now she campaigns to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, speaking at schools, universities and literary festivals. She also runs poetry workshops at her local prison and for mental health charities. Rachel is an ambassador for UK charity SANE and vice president of United Response. Her new book Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness will be published by Short Books in November 2015. For more info on Rachel and her work please visit Rachel-Kelly.net.

  • Saiph2

    Interesting that despite the confrontational “click-bait” statement that “Women suffer depression more than men”, there is absolutely no reputable information in the article to back up that claim. In the western world, depression seems to be very common, among BOTH women and men. In my opinion, it’s caused by the enormous pressures of trying to run a life, a home, and often a family, in a society where every one of us is being exploited more and more to work harder and harder for less and less return. Employers (especially since the financial crash of 2008) seem to take advantage of the fact that employment law in this country has been eroded steadily, and employee protection is now at its lowest levels for about fifty years. People’s career stability is more under threat now than even under Thatcher. We are constantly told that we should work harder and longer, and take less holiday “for the good of the company”. And if you don’t go along with this, you’re marked out as some kind of selfish “rebel”, and your career progression suffers. Western capitalism, a greed for profit by companies, and, to a certain extent, a sense of powerlessness at the ballot box, makes ordinary working people feel as though they have absolutely no control over their own lives. There needs to be some kind of revolutionary change in western societies, to give control back to the ordinary people, and make them feel that they live in genuine democracies. Only then will people feel that they have control, and that their lives actually mean something.

    • noddy

      I agree wholeheartedly and feel like you that Capitalisms non stop profit agenda causes people to be and feel exploited but there is so so little help out there for mental health especially if you are not wealthy. Antidepressants are often given for a vast range of mental malaise and counselling is rare on the NHS and costs a fortune privately and who knows if it works anyway?. ‘Revolutionary Change’ is needed but we are all (apart from the super wealthy elite who run the world) on the treadmill and scared to get off in case we lose what we have often. I think that is why people are going crazy for Jeremy Corbyn because, for a big change, he puts human happiness and human rights as the most important issues and not profit. He is influencing young people who grew up under Blair and co who have never experienced more left wing politics in their lives. I am not saying Corbyn is a revolution but he is a welcome change.

      • Saiph2

        Thanks noddy, you’ve reduced my frustration somewhat just by letting me know that there’s someone out there who’s also unhappy with the way society is being run! Cheers!

  • Rachel Kelly

    I agree that depression is very common for both men and women, and indeed men with depression are more likely to commit suicide than women. I also agree that changes in the workplace have made employees more vulnerable. However, there is evidence that the illness is more widespread among women than men. The mental health charity SANE reports that in 2013 almost 475,000 women were referred for counselling or behavioural therapy compared to 274,000 men. The World Health Organisation has also carried out an extensive study (link here: http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/genderwomen/en/ ) into how depression affects both genders and found the illness to be twice as common in women. Hope this helps.

    • Andy McLeish

      Could the lower figure for men have anything to do with the fact that men avoid going to their G.P.? It seems strange that women suffer more from depression than men yet men have a much higher rate of suicide than women, or is it that women have much better coping strategies such as; much more likely to talk about their problems to friends, attend their local medical practice?

      • Saiph2

        I think you have a good point there Andy. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with recognising that I may have some kind of problem, and I don’t resist going to my GP. I have a very good GP who has helped my family a lot over many years, and I feel comfortable talking to her about anything. But I have heard of cases and spoken to some men who feel they they are being “soft” for needing a GP. Their “male ego” seems to overrule their sense of logic for some reason!

    • Saiph2

      Thank you for the comment and the informational link Rachel. Interesting theory from Andy below.

  • staplesyrup

    According to https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_differences_in_suicide
    Men and women have similar levels of suicidal ideation, but in the U.S. And UK men are about three times as likely to complete suicide. China is the only country where women are more likely than men to complete suicide.