It is no secret that medicine favours men. Male physiognomy and symptoms are the standard for medical diagnosis and general practice. For example, a heart attack is often described as being associated with nausea, chest pain and shortness of breath.
However, did you know that women can also suffer from heart attacks without feeling any chest pain, and can experience fainting, indigestion, and extreme fatigue instead? According to the BHF, women are twice as likely to die from a heart attack than men, in a time when cardiac diseases are more treatable than ever.
Recently, a similar trend seems to be getting called out when it comes to women’s mental health.
In general, women and girls are less likely to be diagnosed with neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD or autism, simply because their symptoms might be different from what doctors are taught as the norm – the male norm.
The NHS outlines the symptoms of ADHD in children as translating to inattentiveness, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity. However, when searching for common ADHD symptoms in girls, the list grows to include things such as hypersensitivity and messiness, as well as often appearing in association with other mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.
According to WebMD, women are more likely to only be diagnosed with ADHD after entering university, once the structure and routines provided by schools are no longer as strict and self-organisation is more essential.
This is most likely due to the fact that being talkative and “ditzy” is much more associated with women in general as opposed to men, and so these traits pass off as more of personality characteristics rather than symptoms of an underlying condition.
Misogyny has been ingrained in psychology, pretty much since its inception as a medical discipline. After all, up until relatively recently, women with depression or anxiety were more likely to be deemed as “hysteric” than to be properly diagnosed with a mental illness and get the help they needed.
In fact, the term hysteria itself is a deliberate choice to isolate women’s mental conditions and discredit them. How many times have we heard that we were “making a big deal out of it” when trying to ask for help, that our mental health concerns weren’t seen as important and critical? Women are, overall, discredited when it comes to our pain, physical or psychological.
When it comes to mental health, the women that gather the courage to ask for help – because yes, sometimes it does take guts to do so – are often written off, because there is a societal stigma that “women are just crazy”. Women are crazy, so one that asks for help for whatever reason is just overreacting. She got a little sad one time and decided she’s depressed, or she got really stressed at work the other day and figured she has anxiety. Why is it that, when women come forward with these issues, they’re always second-guessed and discredited?
And of course, we cannot forget the implications of women’s mental health in men’s mental health. Because women are so associated with this concept of “hysteria” and overreacting when, really, they’re just looking for help with something that is hurting them, men often feel as though they can’t come forward with these same problems, for fear of being seen as “weak” – because women are weak, duh. The misogyny rooted in mental health discussion and psychology as a practice helps no one, even if the guidelines in place for diagnosis are generally those applicable to men first.
At a time when women’s health and safety is, once again, at the forefront of public debate, it is important to ask why it is that we have a harder time getting an accurate and serious diagnosis from medical professionals when it comes to mental illness. Why are doctors in training right now not being properly educated on the different symptoms of various conditions between (biological) men and women?
As if it weren’t bad enough that women are under constant attack simply for existing, we often feel like we can’t even trust our medical professionals’ opinions, because more often than not, those opinions are coming from a knowledge base that favours male symptoms and neglects the ways those same conditions can present in women.
There needs to be a better system in place in order to help women suffering from mental illnesses or neurodivergent conditions, to give them guidance and assistance in navigating their lives. Otherwise, there is a really high risk of a sense of isolation, with these symptoms going unchecked and untreated, which can lead to more mental health issues, in a never-ending cycle. We need to stop shaming women for seeking help, stop diminishing their pain and offer them solutions instead. It’s bad enough out there for us, without the added insult of being invalidated in our struggles with mental health.