Why Dealing With Sexism May Increase Women's Likelihood Of Depression

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When a woman faces sexism, whether it be via catcalls, being passed over at work, or not being paid fairly, she might be told to shake it off and try harder. But these simplistic solutions don't take into account how this treatment could be affecting her mentally, both in the moment and in the long term.

Thanks to a new study by the Young Women's Trust, we can finally see how much of a mental impact sexism truly has on women and why it can no longer go unacknowledged.

Researchers surveyed 2,995 women from ages 16 to 93 and found that women aged 16 to 30 who had experienced sexism are five times more likely to experience depression than those who hadn't experienced sexism, and women aged 31 to 93 who've experienced sexism are 2.4 times as likely. Younger women who had experienced sexism were also found to more commonly report a lower overall life satisfaction. 

Past research has also demonstrated a link between sexism and health consequences. While it's no surprise that sexism, like all forms of mistreatment and discrimination, would negatively affect someone, its link to depression at such a high rate is startling.

Why sexism can affect mental health. 

Like all forms of discrimination, sexism is an appearance-based prejudice. "Sexism is a form of oppression, based on an identity assigned to you at birth. To be disempowered, excluded, silenced, and harmed because of a dimension of who you are is incredibly depressing," Shadeen Francis, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist specializing in sex therapy and social justice, tells mindbodygreen. "If we remember that depression can be situational, sexism is a cultural context that can feel inescapable. This leads to depressive symptoms like hopelessness, fatigue, irritability, pervasive sadness, irritability, or suicidal ideation."

That hopelessness can be a big factor in why women who feel stuck in a continually sexist space might have higher rates of depression, explains Aimee Daramus, Psy.D.

"If you feel that no matter how hard you work or how well you do your job, you're still going to be defined by your [identity], that's likely to leave you feeling hopeless because there's no way to win, and [you feel] helpless to do anything about it," Daramus tells mbg. "If you do your job, get great performance reviews, but if you're being ignored or cut off during meetings, as many women still experience, that's reinforcing to you that your work doesn't matter. Worse, if you do excellent work, and a man gets a promotion, but you get hit on, that's just saying that his work matters, but yours doesn't."

These all-too-common scenarios can make it feel as if you're treading water while wave after wave hits you and pulls you under. "If you're in a situation where no matter how hard you work, your work won't be respected, it's going to be hard to motivate yourself. The exhaustion, sadness, and the tendency to isolate or spend a lot of time in bed makes sense if you don't feel that your effort is going to lead anywhere," Daramus says. "Once you're in that cycle of low motivation and low energy, it can be that much harder to pull yourself up out of a bad situation. If you're going to get catcalled a lot on the way to work, just walking down the street becomes a chore."

Unfortunately, sexist environments also make it harder for women to speak up against this mistreatment, further hurting their mental state as the waves continue to crash over them.

"Blame is also part of this," Daramus says. "If you're treated in a sexist way and you object, you can be blamed for causing trouble or not being a team player. If you grew up in a sexist atmosphere, your body and your emotions might know that you're not being treated right, but your mind can't identify what it is that bothers you. So you may have stomachaches and moodiness with no conscious explanation."

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Advocating for yourself. 

Clearly, addressing sexism isn't just about equality (which is itself, of course, an important goal) but about well-being. If you're in a constantly sexist environment where speaking up isn't leading to change, it may be worth removing yourself from the situation completely for the sake of your mental health, whether that means changing workplaces or ending relationships with people who treat you poorly because of your identity.

When you're in it, it may be hard to believe that a better, more supportive environment exists, but it does. At the end of the day, sexism is harassment just like any other form, and it should not be treated lightly or downplayed.

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