Undiagnosed Mental Health Issues and Self-Medication in Women

Posted on August 17th, 2012

Women and men face very different concerns when it comes to mental health disorders. Not only are men and women more prone to different types of disorders, they frequently experience different symptoms of the same disorders. In addition, women and men often take different approaches when it comes to dealing with mental and physical symptoms that may indicate a mental health issue.

Women are more likely to seek professional help for mental health issues, but research also suggests that women are more susceptible to mental health issues. A study has shown that women in general are more likely to self-medicate, yet they may be less likely than men to attempt to treat mental health issues by themselves.

Are Women More Prone to Mental Health Disorders?

Women are at significantly greater risk for certain mental disorders such as depression, and may be at greater risk for mental health disorders overall. Women are more likely to receive counseling or medication for mental health concerns, but that may be largely due to a greater willingness among women to seek treatment.

Hormonal differences, vulnerability to sexual assault and other gender-based violence, and lingering socioeconomic inequalities have all been suggested as explanations for why women are more susceptible to depression, and may be more susceptible to mental illness overall.

What Qualifies as Self-Medication?

Self-medication can mean several different things. It can refer to taking legal, over-the-counter medications without direction from a physician, such as cough medicine or allergy relief. It may refer to taking prescription medication, properly or improperly, without a physician’s prescription. Self-medication may also refer to using other substances such as alcohol or illicit drugs to alleviate symptoms from a diagnosed or undiagnosed condition.

All of these methods of self-medication have potential risks, but the latter two can be particularly dangerous. Undiagnosed mental health issues are frequently the target of self-medication attempts, since individuals are often unaware of the potential dangers of their condition or of self-medication. Individuals suffering from mental health issues may also be compromised in their ability to make wise decisions concerning their own treatment.

Common Mental Health Issues in Women

Approximately 29 million women, or 23 percent of the female population, will be diagnosed with mental health disorders each year. Many more women will suffer from mental health issues that never receive an official diagnosis.

Women are twice as likely as men to develop major depressive disorder, and are also around twice as likely to develop panic disorders, specific phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder. Following a traumatic event, women are twice as likely as men to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. 85 percent of anorexia and bulimia cases, and 65 percent of binge eating disorders, are diagnosed in women. And although men are four times as likely to die from suicide attempts, women are two to three times as likely to make suicide attempt than men.

More Women Self-Medicate Than Men

A recent Spanish study performed by Rey Juan Carlos University has found that women are more likely to self-medicate than men. The study showed that approximately one in five people in Spain self-medicates, and that 17 percent of women take non-prescribed medication compared to 14 percent of men.

Legal, over-the-counter medications are likely responsible for much of the difference between the rates at which men and women self-medicate. Women are more likely to take medication for colds or other relatively minor complaints. In fact, men are much less likely to seek treatment from a physician for mental health issues, and may therefore be more likely engage in more dangerous forms of self-medication for depression or other issues. There may even be a connection between this tendency to hesitate over seeking mental health treatment and higher rates of alcoholism and illicit drug use among men.

Self-Medication and Addiction

When self-medication involves use of illicit drugs or improper use of prescription drugs, it can lead to addiction. Women face different risks than men when it comes to the potential for drug addiction. On the one hand, women are less likely to self-medicate with illicit drugs and more likely to seek professional help for mental health issues. However, this willingness to seek help also means that women are significantly more likely than men to be taking prescription medications with the potential for addiction.

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