AnnaMarie Houlis
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Mental illnesses are underdiagnosed and can often adversely affect women who may find themselves silently suffering in their workplaces. Because there's still so much stigma surrounding mental illnesses, many women are fearful of speaking up — and a wealth of research suggests that, if they do, they may not be taken seriously, or worse, they may be penalized.

In his 2016 series on coping with mental health in the workplace, Joseph Rauch explains that, while most employers won’t fire someone right there on the spot for admitting to having an anxiety disorder or depression or another mental illness, they may see the employee as a “problem” and, thus, wait a few months before attempting to push them out of the company.

It's critical that society starts deconstructing the taboo of mental illness, as lifetime prevalence rates for any kind of psychological disorder are higher than ever thought — and they're increasing in recent cohorts and affecting nearly half the population, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Still, less than half of those who meet diagnostic criteria for psychological disorders are identified by doctors, and regardless of whether or not they are, these individuals are forced to work in relative obscurity.

Many working women are coping with their mental illnesses in silence, experiencing triggers and symptoms without anyone ever knowing. Here are five sneaky ways that mental illnesses may be affecting the women in your workplace.

1.  Depression Affects More Women Than Men

Data from Mental Health America suggests that one in eight women will experience clinical depression in their lifetime.  The prevalence of major depression is higher in women than in men; in 2010 its global annual prevalence was 5.5 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively, representing a 1.7-fold greater incidence in women, according to research published in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience.

Women at work may be coping with depression, even if it's not immediately evident to those around them.  According to Healthline, the following are some symptoms of depression in women that aren't necessarily obvious:

  • No longer enjoying the same interests
  • Inability to focus for long
  • Loss of appetite
  • Exhaustion with no clear cause
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy
  • Anxiousness or irritability
  • Loss of hope in the future
  • Sleeplessness
  • Mood swings
  • Suicidal thoughts

These aforementioned symptoms can be silent — you may not know that your colleague is dealing with apathy or dangerous thoughts.

2. Anxiety Affects More Women Than Men

From puberty until about the age of 50, women are twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder as men, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). In fact, anxiety disorders occur earlier in women than in men, and women are also more likely to have multiple psychiatric disorders during their lifetime than men.

The reason women suffer from anxiety more than men may have to do with differences in brain chemistry, since the brain system involved in the fight-or-flight response is activated more readily in women, partly as a result of the action of estrogen and progesterone, according to ADAA.

Of course, anxiety isn't always detrimental — but, for a lot of women, it can easily become so.

"Occasional anxiety is an expected part of life — you might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test or before making an important decision," according to The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). "But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The symptoms can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships."

There are types of anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and various phobia-related disorders. At work, women may suffer from symptoms such as the following: 

  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Muscle Tension
  • Feelings of Worry
  • Sleeplessness

In the event of a panic attack, they may witness the following feelings, according to NIMH:

  • Heart palpitation, a pounding heartbeat or an accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath, smothering or choking
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Feelings of a loss of control

While a panic attack might be more obvious, you may not know that your colleague is experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms of anxiety.

3. PTSD Associated with Sexual Trauma Adversely Affects Women

One in five women, compared to one in 71 men, will be raped at some point in their lives, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Specifically, 46.4 percent of lesbians, 74.9 percent of bisexual women and 43.3 percent of heterosexual women have reported sexual violence other than rape during their lifetimes. Worse, in eight out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the person who sexually assaulted them — eight percent of rapes occur while the victim is at work.

And, as recent allegations made during the #MeToo movement have shown, women aren't always believed and are, often, penalized for speaking up about sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.  So, instead, a lot of women suffer in silence, keeping their stories to themselves. That's largely why, 81 percent of women (compared to 35 percent of men) report significant short-term or long-term impacts such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The lifetime prevalence of PTSD is five to six percent in men and 10 to 12 percent in women, Psychology Today reports, suggesting that women have almost double the rate of PTSD as men — and women’s PTSD also tends to last longer (four years versus one year on average).

And because evidence suggests that women are more likely than men to exhibit a “tend and befriend” response to stress — and, therefore may be more vulnerable to PTSD symptoms when they feel lonely or rejected or when social support is not available — they may suffer more in workplaces where speaking up is stigmatized.

4. PTSD Associated with Postpartum Adversely Affects Women

Working mothers may be silently suffering from PTSD during their postpartum period, especially right after they return to work from their maternity leaves. Childbirth can trigger a gamut of emotions — after all, it affects a woman’s hormones immensely, and many mothers experience mood swings, crying bouts, anxiety and difficulty sleeping after giving birth on top of utter elation. These emotions typically come on within the first two to three days post-delivery, and they may last for up to two weeks. 

But, for an average of one in seven women, however, these emotions can quickly devolve into postpartum depression. This means approximately 600,000 women get postpartum depression in the U.S. alone.

Postpartum depression can last long after a mother’s maternity leave has been used and even well past that. In fact, PPD can develop anywhere from a few weeks into motherhood to even a year after delivery, which means many women cope with it day in and day out, even while they work.

5. Bipolar Disorder Affects Women Differently Than Men

Bipolar disorder doesn't necessarily affect more women than men (it affects about 2.8 percent of American adults each year), but research does suggest that it affects women differently than it affects men. Women with the disorder tend to have more depressive and fewer manic episodes than men with the disorder do, according to Healthline.

Women with bipolar disorder might experience the following symptoms:

  • mania (a state of elevated mood)
  • hypomania (a less severe form of mania)
  • depression
  • mixed mania (both manic and depressive symptoms daily for a week or longer)

Working women with bipolar disorder may have a hard time retaining an interest in or passion for a project or assignment, and they may struggle with maintaining relationships with colleagues.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.

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