Could biological factors and experiences be triggers for mental ill health in women?

by Women’s Agenda
Friday 4 August 2023

How do biological factors like menstruation, menopause and pregnancy impact women’s mental health? And what about experiences like miscarriage, or ovarian and cervical cancer?

New research from women’s mental health charity The Liptember Foundation has brought these questions into focus, driving home how each of these biological factors can trigger or contribute to women’s experiences of poor mental health.

In a study of almost 5000 Australian women aged 14 and over, the Liptember Foundation found 1 in 2 women are currently dealing with a mental health issue, with almost 1 in 4 facing a severe form of mental disorder.

That’s a significant portion of Australia’s teenage and adult population of women struggling with their mental health.

The research found that 55 per cent of women who had a diagnosis of  Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) suffer from depression, as do about half of women undergoing the hormonal changes related to menopause.

Pregnancy loss is also having a significant impact on women’s mental health, with 60 per cent of women who have had a stillbirth or miscarriage reporting that they have experienced depression.

Another 53 per cent of women who have dealt with a pregnancy loss have experienced anxiety, while 31 per cent of these women are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Vaginal issues, like bacterial vaginosis, vaginitis, uterine fibroids, and vulvodynia are also impacting women’s mental health, with one quarter of women with one of these conditions reporting a social phobia. 

The Liptember Foundation also highlights that one in every 5 women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) has struggled with suicide and self-harm, and 57 per cent of women living with endometriosis are experiencing anxiety or generalised anxiety disorder.

When it comes to cancer, 35 per cent of those with ovarian or cervical cancer are also living with substance use disorders.

Psychologist Madhavi Nawana-Parker said it is important to recognise the gender gap that exists in mental health, and that biological factors can play a role in this gap.

“There is no doubt that mental health is important for all genders, but Liptember Foundation is doing important work spotlighting the mental health gender gap,” Nawana-Parker said when Liptember’s report was released. 

“In my clinic I often observe that the unique biological challenges and experiences women face in their lifetime can be a trigger for mental ill-health.”

And while these biological factors need to be considered in the context of women’s mental health, there are also a range of socioeconomic, political and cultural factors that can have an impact.

The Liptember Foundation research highlighted that 1 in 3 women are not seeking the help they need for their mental health because they cannot afford it, and it’s young and middle-aged women in regional areas who are the worst affected.

Meanwhile, financial pressure was the second most cited trigger for women currently suffering from depression and anxiety.

“Financial pressures are worsening women’s mental health yet at the same time, a growing number of those who suffer from mental health issues say they can’t afford to seek the help they so desperately need,” Liptember Foundation CEO Luke Morris said.

“With no ease to the cost of living pressures in sight, sadly, we are likely to see women’s mental health suffering as a result in the coming years.”