Today’s article comes from guest blogger, Ryan Rivera. He is an anxiety and depression advocate who writes about anxiety and related mental health disorders at www.calmclinic.com. I am excited to share his article on “Learned Helplessness” with you, a perspective on Women & Depression.
Women suffer from depression more often than men. It has been proven time and time again in the literature that women are as much as 2 times more likely than men to be diagnosed with some form of depression, and while these numbers are likely a bit skewed by the convenience sample (women are also more likely to seek out mental health treatment, and thus would be more likely to be diagnosed with depression), it does appear that there is a significant difference between men and women in experiencing depressive episodes.
Of course, the theories for this vary wildly. Some posit that there are simple genetic differences, where years of evolution have essentially carved out women to have worse coping strategies. Others go so far as to blame feminism – claiming that equal rights have strayed women from their role as subordinates – although obviously this theory holds no water in the research (housewives appear to be more depressed than working, successful women, and financially poor women find work gives them protection).
Yet the most likely reason that women are more likely to suffer from depression is an idea that feminism has been fighting for over the course of the last several decades, and it’s explained in a theory of depression known as the “Learned Helplessness” model.
What is Learned Helplessness?
Learned helplessness is a societal/upbringing issue, greatly differing from the genetics theories of depression. It’s a behavioral principle, where someone has essentially been conditioned to feel as though they’re not in control over their own lives.
With depression, learned helplessness theory is the idea that, over the course of many years and decades, those whose control has been consistently taken from them, and those whose control is responded to with a negative reaction, eventually feel helpless to the world around them. This helplessness then leads to a complete lack of coping ability, because coping itself is the act of regaining control over your thoughts and emotions.
What is Causing Learned Helplessness?
In today’s society, learned helplessness may have a variety of causes. I’m particularly fond of this paragraph by Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema in the article “Gender Differences in Depression.”
“Women’s lack of social power makes them more vulnerable than men to specific major traumas, particularly sexual abuse. Traumas may contribute directly to depression, by making women feel they are helpless to control their lives, and may also contribute indirectly, by increasing women’s reactivity to stress.”
It doesn’t necessarily need to be something as traumatic as sexual assault either. Even in a relationship breakup, if one partner is dependent on the other, the partner that is more dependent is going to have a harder time coping. In relationships, couples don’t necessarily need independence, of course (I would argue that mutual dependency is likely more advantageous, at least in my opinion), but the choice to give up some of that independence needs to be a choice, and many women are not taught enough independence in order to gain that control.
It may not even be as complex as trauma either. Feminism is about being recognized for value and worth. Those who do not feel that value – either from individual people or from society – are going to have a harder time feeling that they themselves can overcome life’s challenges, and thus depression may be borne out of that experience.
Overcoming Depression in Society
Feminism is fighting for a lot of things. It’s fighting for rights. It’s fighting for recognition. It’s fighting for fair treatment. Yet one thing it also might be fighting for is mental health, because in some ways this fight can have a lasting impact on a major mental health problem, and that is something that will help millions upon millions of future women experience a grander, more fulfilling life.