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Can mental health issues be gendered? An Op-Ed.

- by Sukriti Dilwaria

There are many notions as to when patriarchy emerged as a social system. Some implicate the familial concept of fatherhood, while others posit that men controlling private property had something to do with it. Nevertheless, patriarchal structures like gender roles based on the male-female binary have prescribed behavioural and attitudinal traits that we are expected to assimilate and enact throughout our lives. A male child is expected to possess masculine traits (like assertiveness, dominance) and a female child is expected to possess feminine traits (such as warmth, and nurturance), dismissing the idea that children of other gender can possess traits outside of these prescriptions. Gender roles vary from one culture to another but are often rooted in a patriarchal system. When a child is born, gender roles are imposed on them; they are categorized under ‘blue’ or ‘pink’, negating the legitimacy of non-binary genders.

From an early age, girls are taught to be more compassionate, nurturing and submissive whereas boys are taught to be more dominant, self-reliant and apathetic. From elementary choices such as the games a child plays, to more complex decisions like the careers they are encouraged to take up, perceived differences within genders are pervasive. The saying ‘soft minds study soft subjects’ has come alive in that more women study subjects like literature, nursing, sociology and psychology, whereas more men indulge in subjects related to technology, numbers and reasoning. Traditionally, women have been conditioned to give priority to maternal roles, such roles then taking center stage in their lives. Women who reject this idea and go on to lead lives devoid of such stereotypes are ridiculed along the way or considered ‘fierce’ or ‘rebellious’. Hence, when conflicts resulting out of familial strains arise, the dissonance between these two roles may negatively affect the mental health of said women. In general, women are hardly looked at as individuals; rather, they are looked at relation to the men around them, casting them as someone’s wife, daughter, mother, etc., instead of as autonomous freethinking persons in their own right. In their daily lives, women are heavily reliant on male relatives or partners, imbibing a sense of dependency which leads to higher environmentally infused stressors, increasing the prevalence of mental health issues like phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, bulimia, major depression, and alcoholism. Studies on gender differences in mental health show that women are more susceptible to stress, anxiety and depression more than men. On the contrary, men are more susceptible to substance abuse and externalizing disorders attributable to gendered prescriptions of behaviour and emotionality. Similarly, since childhood toxic masculinity prevents boys from freely expressing themselves, eventually and forcing them to express their suppressed emotions in the form of anger and violence. Society has conditioned men to play into the role of a Provider, and any conflict which affects their professional role can operate as a trigger for their mental health.

It has been studied that the rate of intervention related to mental health is higher in women because they are taught from an early age to be more emotionally vocal and men on the other hand have a lower intervention rate because they are taught to endure pain. Studies suggest that dual-working partners lead more satisfactory lives in comparison to single-working partners. Responsibilities such as finances, domestic work and rearing of children if shared by both the partners, maintains a harmonious and compassionate environment. Reduced imposition of gender roles, allows for early intervention, improving individuals’ mental health status.

What about gender non-binary folk?

Apart from the mental health issues faced by the traditionally considered binary genders, non-binary genders (which do not conform to societal prescriptions of masculine and feminine) are continuing to face increased burden of psychiatric disorders due to gender roles foisted on them at birth. Even as they grow, their identity is neglected or even suppressed, and they are susceptible to more trauma and stress from a very young age. suicide, mood disorders and Personality Disorders are the most commonly diagnosed disorders in non-binary genders, caused majorly because of social/environmental factors. Although still quite prevalent, more societies are dismissing the idea of gender roles and deeming gender-specific roles as irrelevant. But it still stands true that all over the world, a majority of societies are still facing the wrath of traditional gender roles. An example of this is gender based violence, which cyclically predicts disorders like PTSD, Stress and Anxiety in gender non-conforming populations.

Admittedly, while academic conversations surrounding gender roles might seem esoteric, gendered based expectations have real life implications for how we navigate societal structures. Urban women today contribute substantially to a family’s income, however their homemaker’ role still takes precedence over the professional one. And vice versa. Sociology describes many public and private spaces as being gendered as well. For instance, in many Indian households, the kitchen is a space which is most accessed by females whereas, the living room is occupied by males. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, came a stringent rule to stay indoors, and this saw a rise in the gap in employment and education between females and males. In India, as data suggests, the employment-to-population, and education-to-population ratios are lower among females as compared with males. While other factors do come into play, this gap was also witnessed because of the implied gender roles. Women, even those employed, were burdened with the double responsibility of managing domestic work. Men, who are considered the prime breadwinners of the family, lost jobs or saw a rise in pay-cut. This led to increased stress for men due to the direct attack to their provider role. As a society, we ought to question whether the prescriptive nature of gender are especially harmful to an individual's mental well-being, and whether they serve any function in modern society.

Where do we go from here?

In order to tackle such imposed stigma, we need to normalize everyone being involved in all spheres of development, and break the barriers of gender roles. At an individual level, neutralizing non-gendered activities, roles, and interests of children in the house – and rewarding this – by all genders will widen its acceptability. Promote and protect independent thinking, disregarding society’s prescriptions for gender appropriate behaviours. Accept women in less nurturing and compassionate roles and provide them with a space to select their own path when it comes to education, career, and marriage. Encourage men to be expressive about their emotions and normalize them not being the sole earning member of the family. Bearing in mind the specific way gender roles play into mental health problems, it is integral to build gender-neutral environments for children from a young age so that the prevalence of gender based mental health issues can be reduced. As per Sandra Bem’s theory on Androgyny, people who have both masculine and feminine traits lead more fulfilling lives in comparison to people who follow the binaries of masculine and feminine characteristics.

In popular media, gender roles are being challenged through the portrayal of strong female lead characters. Such portrayals encourage individuals to look beyond their own and others’ gender with regard to social, political and economic status, creating a better space for conversations revolving around mental health. Literary works written in the early 19th century by feminist novelists such as Tarabai Shinde’s Stri Purush Tulana and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream to present day literary works such as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, emphasize by way of enticing stories on the troublesome nature of imposed gender roles in an individual’s life. While decades have passed, through such artistic works, it is evident that we are still resisting social issues that perpetuate gendered psychological distress rooted in gender. Clearly, we still have a ways to go.


Sukriti Dilwaria is a Mental Health Advocate at Nolmë Labs. She is an adventure seeker, an avid reader and a frequent traveler. She is passionate about joining the Indian Army. She is currently pursuing her Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology.

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