Mod­ern women are dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected by men­tal health issues

The National - News - - OPINION - SHELINA JANMOHAMED Shelina Janmohamed is the au­thor of Love in a Head­scarf and Gen­er­a­tion M: Young Mus­lims Chang­ing the World

Re­sponses play into the age-old tropes stretch­ing back to Aris­to­tle that women are in­her­ently prone to hys­ter­ics

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” wrote Charles Dick­ens in the open­ing lines of A Tale of

Two Cities. “It was the spring of hope, it was the win­ter of de­spair.”

He could eas­ily have been writ­ing about the state of wom­an­hood in the 21st cen­tury. It feels that in the time we live in it is harder than ever to be a woman, and yet surely no time in his­tory has ever been so good for women? A study pub­lished by the Men­tal Health Foun­da­tion in the UK ear­lier this week has shown that a stag­ger­ing 81 per cent of women feel stressed and “un­able to cope”. While the num­ber for men is also high at 67 per cent, the fact that more than four out of five women are feel­ing this high level of emo­tional dis­tress is ex­tra­or­di­nary. And the num­bers are even higher among younger groups.

I read the de­tails of this study and re­alised – af­ter much self-de­nial – that this is me and so many of the women I know.

I couldn’t work out if it made me feel bet­ter or worse that the next three women I meet will prob­a­bly feel the same. Who is this one woman, a uni­corn walk­ing amongst us, who is not feel­ing stressed? Is she Meghan Markle, about to walk into the life of a princess? Although even her life seems to have taken a stress­ful turn this week.

We know that one in three women glob­ally suf­fers phys­i­cal or sexual vi­o­lence. We know that the gen­der pay gap ex­ists wher­ever you are in the world. We know that it will take 200 years to achieve gen­der par­ity. Women die in child­birth, women die at the hands of their part­ners, women die for lack of health­care or lack of ac­cess to it. Women suf­fer higher rates of poverty and il­lit­er­acy than men.

When it comes to chang­ing the sta­tus of women glob­ally, women’s bod­ies, bod­ily au­ton­omy and par­tic­i­pa­tion in the phys­i­cal ex­ter­nal space have of­ten dom­i­nated the dis­course. The achieve­ment of fe­male suf­frage is one huge ex­am­ple of that, which in the UK we are celebrating one hun­dred years af­ter that hap­pened.

The ques­tion is, will the next wave of fem­i­nism be about tack­ling the men­tal well-be­ing and the stresses that dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect women? We might not be able to see them, but if four out of five women can’t cope then surely this must be the next fron­tier we fight?

In 1963, Betty Friedan pub­lished the ground­break­ing book The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique which tackled the idea that ful­fil­ment as a woman had only one def­i­ni­tion for Amer­i­can women: the house­wife-mother. She called the wide­spread un­hap­pi­ness of these mid­dle class house­wives “the prob­lem that has no name” de­spite liv­ing in ma­te­rial com­fort and seem­ingly sta­ble fam­i­lies.

Half a cen­tury on, the changes that have hap­pened in the work and pub­lic spa­ces as a re­sult may have cre­ated rad­i­cal so­cial shifts, but the un­der­ly­ing un­hap­pi­ness seems to re­main. Whether it is the same stresses and mis­eries or dif­fer­ent ones is un­known.

But in some ways the chal­lenges in tack­ling these issues re­main as they did in the 1960s, with issues like stress and men­tal health be­ing brushed off as women suf­fer­ing “First World Prob­lems”. Some­times this is used to push back on women to say they are not “re­ally” suf­fer­ing. It plays into the age-old tropes – stretch­ing way back to Aris­to­tle and beyond – that women are in­her­ently prone to hys­ter­ics. The word hys­te­ria it­self is con­nected to the uterus.

Women have also started to

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