May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which seeks to raise awareness for the importance of emotional and mental well-being. National Women’s Health Week also takes place in May, to bring attention to the mental health issues that women may face. Both men and women can experience the same emotional and psychological disorders, but women should be aware of specific biological factors that may affect their mental health.
Men and women experience mental disorders at about the same rate. However, women can experience certain mental illness symptoms more often than men do. It is common for women to experience those symptoms during hormonal changes. For example, a woman’s risk of depression is 2-4 times greater during perimenopause, which is the transition from childbearing age to the non-reproductive stage of life.
Certain functions and changes in women’s bodies can cause some mental illnesses to last longer or be more severe. Hormones can affect a woman’s emotions, mental state, and moods in different ways throughout her lifetime. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a combination of symptoms that many women get about 1-2 weeks before their period. Most women report experiencing moodiness, bloating, and headaches. Those symptoms may be mild or severe. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is similar to PMS but tends to cause more extreme irritability, severe depression, or anxiety. Symptoms usually go away 2-3 days after the menstrual cycle starts.
Although the exact causes are not known, some research suggests that the slow loss of estrogens (the hormones responsible for the development and regulation of the female reproductive system) may cause depression. Sometimes the physical symptoms of perimenopause – such as “hot flashes,” sleeping disorders, pain during sex, and urinary problems – can cause stress. That type of stress may lead to anxiety and depression.
Signs of a Serious Problem
The emotional changes and mood swings women experience that are caused by hormone levels or related symptoms are not usually warning signs of a severe mental condition. Lifestyle and social stress, family changes such as growing children or aging parents, work-related stress, and financial disruptions can cause the same symptoms that result from hormonal changes.
Staying alert to certain ongoing or severe symptoms is an important part of mental health maintenance for women. Some warning signs include:
• Persistent sadness or feelings of hopelessness
• Aches, headaches, or digestive problems that don’t seem to have a normal cause
• Constant worry, fearfulness
• Major changes in sleeping habits
• Extreme changes in appetite
• Low energy or extreme fatigue
• Avoiding communicating with others
• Seeing or hearing things that are not there
• Extremely high and low moods
• Suicidal thoughts
Fatiha Salaam, NP, with the UAB Women & Infants Center, says that women should always pay attention to mood changes, emotional highs and lows, and mental difficulties during all phases of their life – from their first period to menopause and beyond.
“When we talk about mental health in that context, we mean caring for yourself in order to maximize well-being and suffer less from the symptoms that hormone changes can bring,” Salaam says. “Not every emotional disruption is a mental health crisis. But when those symptoms become extreme or even begin to feel unmanageable, it’s wise not to dismiss those feelings as just a difficult period or only a side effect of menopause. The best way to know the difference is to talk to your doctor. It’s also wise to do that sooner rather than later.”
Proactive Mental Health Care
Women who have concerns about their mental well-being should not wait to be asked about those issues during a regular checkup, Salaam says.
“I advise women to start that conversation,” Salaam says. “They know what’s different in their lives before we do, and only they will know if feelings of helplessness, depression, and other emotions are getting out of control or if they last for several weeks, which can indicate a deeper problem. With pregnant women, we measure their depression scale twice during the pregnancy, so that we can intervene with treatments if necessary to prevent postpartum depression. For other women, we have similar proactive resources available for their care, but we always want to hear from them before problems get serious.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers the following tips to help prepare patients to talk to a doctor about mental health.
- Talk to a primary care provider. People with mental disorders often can be at risk for other medical conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. In many primary care settings, you may be asked if you’re feeling anxious or depressed and if you’ve had thoughts of suicide. Even if you are not asked first, take this opportunity to talk to your primary care doctor, who can then refer you to a mental health professional.
- Prepare ahead of your visit. Make a list of what you want to discuss and any questions or concerns you might have.
- Make a list of your medications. It’s important to tell your health care provider about all the medications you’re taking, including over-the-counter drugs, herbal remedies, vitamins, and supplements.
- Review your family history. Certain mental illnesses tend to run in families and having a relative with a mental disorder could mean you’re at higher risk. Knowing your family mental health history help your doctor recommend actions for reducing your risk and identify early warning signs.
- Consider bringing a friend or relative. A companion can be there for support, take notes, and help remember what you and your provider discussed. They also might be able to offer input to your provider about how they think you are doing.
- Be honest. Your health care provider can only help you get better if you have open and honest communication. Describe all of your symptoms to your provider, and be specific about when they started, how severe they are, and how often they occur. You also should discuss any major stressors or recent life changes that could be causing your symptoms or making them worse.
Click here for more information about mental health visits and a guide to emotional well-being.
SOURCE: National Institutes of Health