New Mental Health Care Guidelines Emphasize The Unique Experience Of Womanhood

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Living life as a woman in today's world means embodying a multitude of contradictions. If you're a mom, you may feel like you have to crush it at work and at home while maintaining a super-positive social media profile (and shouldering the bulk of the housework). Women of color are often expected to "rise above their circumstances" while acting as powerful savior figures for others in their lives (and dealing with myriad mental health struggles along the way, such as heightened rates of anxiety). Transgender women, too, must be both feminine and resolute, while also dealing with deeply traumatizing discrimination from the general population on a daily basis. The list goes on and on.

And no matter who you are or where you live, if you identify as a woman, you've probably been subjected to some kind of sexual harassment or gender discrimination in your lifetime. (A 2013 study found that 90 percent of women in the U.S. will experience some kind of violence in their lifetime.)

Women go through unique struggles because of their gender and the way it intersects with their other identities. When all of this trauma adds up, a woman might decide to go see a therapist—but even that experience of therapy can be fraught for many of us. For years, women's "excessive" emotions were considered a driving force in their lives and a detriment to their mental health. (If you've never read about this history of hysteria, now's the time!) Even today, studies show women who have experienced interpersonal traumas are more likely to be diagnosed with hefty pathologies like psychosis.

This week, the American Psychological Association took an important step in the right direction to help modern women receive more effective mental health care by releasing a new set of guidelines about how to best provide therapy to women and girls. The new guidelines suggest therapists use such psychological diagnoses only when truly necessary; additionally, they encourage therapists to stay aware that "girls and women form their identities in contexts with multiple, contradictory, and changing messages about what it means to be female."

It's been more than 10 years since these guidelines were updated; in the previous 2007 version, there was only a single mention of transgender women and very few mentions of refugees or people with disabilities. The new guidelines focus on the broader experiences of many women, including older women, veterans, women with disabilities, women of color, and more.

Specifically, the guidelines suggest therapists should focus on resilience and strength, acknowledging that these skills can help women cope with specific, gender-based adversities. The best part? The APA posits that women already have these skills; we just need to have them reinforced in certain situations.

"While girls and women face considerable adversities due to the effects of sexism, oppression, discrimination, and prejudice, and while the struggles they face are amplified when they are members of other marginalized groups...girls and women are also often well equipped to confront and surmount the challenges in their lives," the authors write.

What does this resilience training look like in a therapy session? The APA authors use the example of a Latina client. She comes in to discuss an experience of sexual harassment and says that she blames herself for the experience, so it's the therapist's job to explain the law, normalize the woman's self-blame, and challenge those feelings by talking to the woman about how this experience fits into the context of the structural inequities women, and Latina women in particular, face every day.

"The therapist brings empathy to the situation in helping the client discuss whether to report the harassment, empowers the client to make her own decision about reporting or talking to the individual, [and] supports the decision the client makes," the authors write. Essentially, these new guidelines are all about encouraging a woman's strength and bringing in context to remind her that the circumstances around her are unjust.

According to several studies, women who feel they can defy gender stereotypes, those who express moral outrage against social justice, and women who embrace feminist ideals are more likely to thrive individually and in relationships down the line. Thus, the guidelines ask therapists to help women build their own identities based on what works for them, not what's expected of them.

Finally, the guidelines ask mental health professionals to acknowledge their own biases and experience in regard to gendered experiences since these biases can unknowingly affect the type of treatment a woman gets. They encourage cultural competence above all else.

These new guidelines are ambitious, but they're also bound to make a cascade of differences in clinics and for individual therapists all over the U.S. Of course, if you want to get the most out of your therapy sessions, you'll still have to work with your therapist to ask for what you need. Amanda Bowers, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Atlanta, Georgia, tells mbg the most important part of therapy is making it a practice. Above all else, you have to show up and be vocal.

"Building a relationship with your therapist and the regular contact that requires is the foundation for gaining the most from your therapy experience," she says. She also suggests that in order to get the most out of your sessions, you should do your homework between sessions and get radically honest with your therapist about what's going on in your life—especially if it's something you know only someone like you could understand.

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