A British survey suggests there's gender disparity when it comes to mental health and well-being for most of our lives.
Every year, British researchers release data from the Health Survey for England, an ongoing study designed to monitor trends in the country’s health. The 2016 findings, released this week, included data about obesity (rates have remained similar since 2010), blood pressure (28% of adults have hypertension), smoking (there’s been a steady decline since 1993), and more.
But it was the mental-health findings that made some major headlines around the world. The 8,000-person survey showed that adult men scored higher than women on overall well-being in every age group up to 65; women finally surpassed men in their late 70s, and edged a little farther ahead after age 85.
Or, as the Daily Mail put it, “Women are more miserable than men until their mid-80s when they are widowed and begin enjoying retirement.”
Well, that’s a serious bummer. Although the Daily Mail’s assessment does take a bit of liberty with the findings: The report only compiles health statistics based on survey responses; it can’t actually say why women’s well-being suffers compared to men’s for most of their lives, or why it suddenly gets better in old age.
And since the survey responses were from British men and women, we don’t know for sure if the results would be the same for Americans. But Gail Saltz, PhD, Health’s contributing psychology editor and author of The Power of Different, says the findings support studies that have already occurred in the United States. “Research shows that men derive more mental and physical health benefits from marriage into late life than women do,” she says. Assuming many of the men and women in the survey are married (demographics were not included in the report), this may have something to do with the disparity.
Saltz speculates that the reasons for women’s lower well-being levels could vary, from women being more likely to be caretakers to their spouses and relatives, to women being more likely to stay in unhappy or non-fulfilling relationships because of financial dependence.
Women are also diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders at twice the rate of men—although they are also more likely to seek mental-health care, says Michael Hakimi, PsyD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Loyola Medicine.
On average, well-being scores in the report (on a scale of 14 to 70) were slightly higher for men than for women: 50.1 versus 49.6. That’s a decline from 2015, when the scores were 51.7 and 51.5 respectively. In addition, the percentage of British residents who had a probable mental illness increased from 15% in 2012 to 19% in 2016.
decrease in overall mental health and well-being is no surprise either, and also reflects current sentiments in our own country: This year’s Stress In America survey from the American Psychological Association found that nearly two-thirds of U.S. residents are stressed out by thinking about the future, with 59% of respondents considering this to be the lowest point in American history that they can remember.
Hakimi says it’s not surprising that women—in the U.K. or in America—would have lower well-being for much of their adult lives. Women are more likely than men to put others first, he says—including their children, their spouses, and their parents or older relatives—before they tend to their own mental health and their own needs. “Women’s roles used to be in the home,” he says, “and since they’ve gained more independence and entered the workforce, many have not given up those responsibilities of keeping the house and raising the children. It’s only when they reach old age that those other responsibilities are gone, and they can finally pay attention to themselves."
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So what can we learn from this depressing but not-so-shocking news? “The message, especially for women, is to take time for yourself and for things that you enjoy—no matter how many other responsibilities you have,” Hakimi says. “You have to take charge of your own mental health, because no one else is going to do it for you.”