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Study Finds People Detect Depression in Women More Readily than in Men

A British researcher has discovered gender differences in mental health literacy and gender bias in the diagnosis of depression

--by Suzanne Boothby An unhappy couple

The Gist

A new study examined how people perceive depression symptoms, and found that gender attitudes differ for men and women. When participants were given a story about a hypothetical man showing depressive symptoms and a hypothetical woman with the same pathology, they were more likely to say that the woman had depression and should seek help than the man.

However, female participants were more likely than male ones to identify when a man was afflicted with a mental health disorder. Attitudes toward people with depression were affected by attitudes toward seeking psychological help, psychiatric skepticism, and anti-scientific attitudes, the study also found.

Women are about twice as likely as men to have an anxiety disorder and are also more likely to have multiple psychiatric disorders in their lifetimes than men, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

The Expert Take

“The present study provides evidence that there are individual differences in mental health literacy and attitudes toward depression,” wrote study author Viren Swami in the current paper published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE. 

Some say that because women express emotional distress more often than men, they are more likely to be diagnosed with depression. But doctors should be wary of jumping to conclusions based solely on a patient's gender.

“Health professionals need to be sensitive to patients who have difficulties in expressing emotional distress and critical of gender stereotypes which suggest that women invariably find it easy to express emotional distress and men invariably find it difficult,” according to authors of a study published in BioMed Central Family Practice in 2007.

Source and Method

The study authors used a representative British general survey of 1,218 adults and presented study participants with one of two fictitious subjects, Kate or Jack. Both were described in non-clinical terms as having identical symptoms of major depression, the only difference being their suggested gender.

“For the past two weeks, Kate/Jack has been feeling really down," a sample of the test reads. "S/he wakes up in the morning with a flat, heavy feeling that sticks with her/him all day. S/he isn’t enjoying things the way s/he normally would. S/he finds it hard to concentrate on anything.”

Respondents were asked to identify whether the individual described suffered from a mental health disorder, and how likely they would be to recommend that Kate or Jack seek professional help.

Men and women were equally likely to say that Kate had a mental health disorder, but men were less likely than women to say that Jack did. Men were also more likely to recommend that Kate seek professional help than women were, though both men and women were equally likely to recommend help for Jack. Respondents, especially men, rated Kate’s case as more distressing, difficult to treat, and deserving of sympathy than they did Jack’s case.

Respondents also rated the fictional stories along a number of attitudinal dimensions, and completed measures of attitudes toward seeking psychological help, psychiatric skepticism, and anti-scientific attitudes.

The Takeaway

Initiatives that consider the impact of gender stereotypes along with individual differences may enhance mental health literacy, according to this new study, called "Mental Health Literacy of Depression: Gender Differences and Attitudinal Antecedents in a Representative British Sample."

Other Research

A 2010 study of rats conducted by researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia found gender differences in the brain’s stress response, and that female brains were more sensitive to a key stress hormone than those of males.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.