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Women and Mental Health: Issues for Health Reform

Mental illness affects equal numbers of women and men, but patterns and types of illness differ profoundly. Women appear to face mental health risks and confront barriers in receiving treatment that are very different from those experienced by men. The reasons for these differences are not clearly understood.

As a first step toward grasping the issues involved, the Fund's Commission on Women's Health sponsored a study that summarizes the available data on the incidence and prevalence of mental disorders in women, their use of mental health services, and the treatment they receive. I am very pleased to send you a copy of the study.

What I find particularly disturbing is the extent of the problems faced by women in seeking mental health care. Symptoms that might not conform to diagnostic thresholds are often not treated properly.

In fact, passive attitudes, concerns about stigma, and low self-esteem lead some women to avoid treatment altogether. Obligations to children, family, and work create real constraints on seeking care. Finally, the absence of health insurance coverage, or exclusions or limits on mental health services, are major financial barriers.

The study clearly shows the need for more research on the mental health services that are appropriate to women and the circumstances of their everyday lives.

  • Major depression, phobias, generalized anxiety, and panic disorders are twice as common among women as among men.
  • Seven million women in the United States currently suffer from a diagnosable depression. Only 37 percent of these women will seek care.
  • Married women have higher rates of depression than unmarried women, with rates peaking during the childbearing years. While mental health needs are greatest among women in their 20s and 30s, utilization of mental health services is greatest among women over 65.
  • Among women using mental health services, 28 percent have experienced some form of sexual assault.
  • Women are more likely than men to receive prescriptions for psychotropic drugs. Almost one-half of all women age 35 or older have used tranquilizers medically.
  • Better health insurance coverage is associated with higher levels of mental health use. Uninsured people receive only 40 percent as much mental health service as Medicaid beneficiaries.
  • In 1991, 15 percent of all women, ages 18-64, had no health insurance.

The full report is not available at this time.

Publication Details



Women and Mental Health: Issues for Health Reform, Sherry Glied and Sharon Kofman, The Commonwealth Fund, June 1995