From the time a girl hits puberty until she’s a middle-aged woman, her likelihood of having an anxiety disorder is twice that of a man. She is also more likely to develop an anxiety disorder earlier in life.
As a child, her chance of suffering anxiety is the same as the boys. But something happens around puberty – just as she becomes a teenager – that heightens her risk.
The same pattern exists for depression. While some of the gender difference in mental health issues can be explained by the tendency of men to not seek help for emotional problems – experts argue that even accounting for this, women experience depression more than men.
A girl is also significantly more prone to develop an eating disorder, particularly anorexia nervosa, than a boy. Anorexia tends to have an early onset, and it can take an average of seven years to recover. Bulimia and other eating disorders are also far more common in girls.
These mental health issues are highly comorbid – meaning many of them co-occur in the same person. An individual diagnosed with depression is likely to have an anxiety disorder, for example.
Of course, this has devastating impacts for women. It affects their education, their participation, their success at work and their wellbeing.
Listen: Amy Schumer’s confusing marketing messages about body image. Post continues after audio.
There’s also the corresponding stereotype that young women are erratic, irrational and highly emotional – traits that somewhat trivialise their experiences when they really are suffering. Young girls are perceived as mean and vindictive, superficial and self-obsessed. They’re not taken seriously as a demographic, in spite of their very real and sometimes very dangerous difficulties.
Ever since I learned about these statistics, I’ve been plagued with one question: Why?
Why are girls so vulnerable? What happens to girls as they move from childhood to adulthood, that seems to be so emotionally taxing? What is it about puberty that has such a profound and unique impact on the mental health of females?
Of course, there are several theories. Some believe that the answer is hormonal, but even those who flesh out the hormonal differences between men and women during puberty say that the effect of these differences is somewhat trivial. It’s also not fair to make general assumptions about the impact of hormones – given that hormones differ greatly between individuals and are likely to have unique effects on different individuals.