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Mental illness strikes regardless of gender. However, research from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) shows that women are historically more likely to report poor mental health conditions than men. This has proven true throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as well. In fact, 47% of women reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the last quarter of 2020 compared to 38% of men.
Among college students, emotional exhaustion from the continued impact of COVID-19, racial stressors, and political unrest has led to increased anxiety, depression, sleep disruptions, and thoughts of suicide. During the past year, 56% of young adults ages 18 to 24 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.
And, like the broader U.S. population, the American College Health Association (ACHA) Spring 2019 National College Health Assessment confirms that female college students are more likely to report symptoms related to mental health concerns:
92% of female students
78% of male students
Reported feeling overwhelmed by their workload.
89% of female students
76% of male students
Reported feeling exhausted.
72% of female students
51% of male studentss
Reported feeling overwhelming anxiety.
59% of female students
48% of male students
Reported feeling things were hopeless.
55% of female students
43% of male students
Reported that academics have been “traumatic” or “very difficult to handle.”
Male and female college students respond in different ways to stress. They also manage stress differently and perceive their ability to do so in different ways. These differences create a divide in how to address and provide for mental health needs. Men and women must understand these differences to more effectively manage stress and find appropriate mental health treatment. While this content doesn’t look specifically at other gender identities or sexual orientations, it’s important to note that the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersexed (LGBTQI*) community faces unique mental health concerns. (The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has helpful resources on this topic.)
Here’s a closer look at how mental health issues look different for women in comparison to men.
Women college students are more likely to struggle with anxiety.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect women at twice the rate they affect men. Clinicians have explored the biological risk factors that create this gap, but research is limited and not well-documented.
Unfortunately, the anxiety prevalence gap is especially noticeable among college students. According to the ACHA Spring 2019 National College Health Assessment, 91% of female college students reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do in the previous 12 months. Compare this data point to 76% among male college students. Additionally, a recent study of student leaders at Dartmouth found that female student leaders had higher grade point averages than males by 0.23 points. Despite this fact, female students in the study considered themselves to be less intelligent than their male counterparts. When a student loses confidence, he or she often loses his or her motivation to learn. By making it a point to boost student self-esteem, educators safeguard one of the most important ingredients to student success: motivation.
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Women are more likely to be diagnosed with eating disorders.
Although eating disorders can affect anyone, they are most often reported in adolescents and young women. Surveys estimate that over 20 million women in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, compared to 10 million men.
Most eating disorders begin among young adults between the ages of 18 and 21. Thirty-five percent of young people who diet escalate to pathological dieting, and 25% of them develop partial or full syndrome eating disorders. The increased workload, reduced structure, and focus on peers that come with college life can collide with mental health issues like anxiety, learning problems, poor self-esteem, substance abuse, and a host of mental disorders. Eating disorders develop when the need to feel control over a stressful environment is channeled through coping mechanisms like food restriction, eating large amounts of food, excessive exercise, and an unhealthy focus on body weight.
Women are more likely to attempt suicide.
Mental health professionals at Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) report that 123 Americans die by suicide every day. That translates to one suicide in the U.S. every 12 minutes. And while more men die by suicide, women are more likely to be diagnosed with a depressive condition and to attempt to take their own lives.
Here are the facts on suicide when comparing men and women:
- Females experience symptoms of depression at roughly two times the rate of men.
- Females are more likely than males to have had suicidal thoughts.
- Females attempt suicide three times as often as males.
According to recent surveys, the mental health problems at colleges have gone from bad to worse due to COVID-19. The social and economic uncertainty exacerbated worrisome mental health issues among college students. Public health statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report one in 4 people aged 18 to 24 had “seriously considered suicide” in the last 30 days. So, while college students may be at a lower risk of contracting COVID-19, they are at disproportionately high risk for suicide. This fact makes suicide prevention resources and planning a critical component of supporting students.
Women are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While PTSD can happen to anyone, statistics show there is a significant gender difference in the prevalence of PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD, 10% of women have PTSD sometime in their lifetimes, compared to 4% of men.
Why? Because women are subjected to specific types of trauma with a much higher overall conditional risk of PTSD. Men are more likely to encounter traumas such as physical assault, accidents, disaster, combat, or to see death and injury. Women, on the other hand, will more likely experience rape, sexual assault, or sexual abuse as a child.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that 91% of rape and sexual assault victims are women. Moreover, 20% of women will be raped at some point in their lives compared to 1.4% of men. One study found the effects of sexual assault are so traumatizing that 94% of female victims experienced PTSD symptoms within the first two weeks following the incident.
What can female college students do to improve their mental health?
Here are five recommendations for how female college student can care for their mental health:
1. Stay active.
Any form of exercise can improve your physical health and your mental health. And, there are usually a variety of groups on campus for young women that can also help you build a support network and improve your wellness. For example, Changing Health, Attitudes + Actions to Recreate Girls (CHAARG) is a club on over 50 campuses with a mission to show college-aged women the benefits of healthy fitness.
2. Join a club or organization.
Finding a group to join that engages in a healthy activity can be a positive influence on women’s mental health. There are typically many women’s organizations on campus related to specific careers or majors, activism, hobbies, and more.
3. Find a volunteer opportunity.
Volunteering is a great way to give back to the community and find like-minded women. According to a study by the London School of Economics, students who volunteered monthly described themselves as “very happy” 7% more often than those who didn’t. That number rose 16% for those who volunteered every week.
4. Take advantage of therapy animals.
Research shows that college students who participated in a dog therapy program showed reduced feelings of homesickness. If your school doesn’t have an animal therapy program as a treatment option, consider volunteering at the local animal shelter or humane society. You’ll get the double benefit of interacting with animals and volunteering.
5. Get adequate sleep.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults ages, 18 to 25 need seven to nine hours of sleep a night. It can be difficult to catch a full night’s sleep as a busy college student. Over 46% of college women reported feeling “tired, dragged out or sleepy during the day” three to five days per week. Improve your well-being by making the effort to get a full night’s sleep.
Mental health for college students is an important part of campus health and well-being. Programs and resources need to be tailored to meet the needs of different student populations, whether it is gender identity, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. These differences can create gaps in care, based on the mental health resources available.
Both before and during COVID-19, women have reported higher rates of anxiety compared to men. Studies reveal that regardless of the sources of stress and the physical and emotional symptoms of stress, men and women also manage their stress in different ways. That’s why students must have access to the mental health programs and resources that meet them where they are, with what they need.
TimelyMD exists to improve the mental health of college students by making virtual medical and mental healthcare accessible anytime, anywhere. This mission extends to all college students, including female students from all types of backgrounds and experiences. As a strategic partner, TimelyMD providers are trained to follow campus procedures for a crisis situation and in-person referrals. Additionally, shared visit summaries are provided to the student and campus counseling center to provide continuity of care.