After centuries of stigmatization, misdiagnosis, and mistreatment, mental health awareness has finally become a huge talking point in recent years. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people suffered from depression, anxiety, and similar conditions. Now, nearly one in five adults lives with a mental health disorder — and that doesn’t even include those living with undiagnosed disorders.
When it comes to mental health and suffering in silence, women continue to face challenges built on centuries of medical mismanagement of their health. Since the pandemic, many have simultaneously taken on professional and domestic responsibilities with little physical or financial assistance. Meanwhile, society expects them to compose themselves and carry on indefinitely.
Unfortunately, this response has been perpetuated by centuries of sexism and a disregard for womankind. While we’ve come a long way from the unacceptable mental health approaches of the past, it’s important this Women’s History Month in March to recognize the legacy of harmful attitudes toward women’s mental health — from the stigmas and falsehoods that surrounded it in the past to the challenges that still keep many women from speaking out today.
A History of Hysteria
Historically, traditional gender roles and social perspectives have conspired to paint a strange and oppressive picture of women’s mental health.
In ancient Greece and Egypt, people believed that if women’s wombs weren’t continuously satisfied with sex or impregnation, the uterus would wander to other parts of the body, thereby causing a host of mental health problems. Eventually, this theory led to the use of “hysteria” as a catch-all diagnosis for women’s psychological and physical health issues.
It wasn’t until roughly the 16th century that men began to understand the female reproductive system from a medical standpoint. Men began to act as gynecologists and midwives, roles historically and overwhelmingly held by women in earlier times.
With the decreasing participation of women and men’s rising power over women’s medicine, the general public came to fear women’s mental health problems, associating them with witchcraft and dark magic. Sadly, many women were prosecuted and murdered under the pretense of being “witches” when they or their neighbors may really have suffered from mental health disorders and other serious illnesses. Disturbingly, these attitudes did not change for several centuries, even as the rest of the world progressed.
Hundreds of years later, doctors were still diagnosing women with “hysteria” to explain away symptoms of other disorders. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, physicians used hysteria as a medical scapegoat for everything from sexual health conditions to endometriosis and mental health issues. Treatments included sexual intercourse, abstinence, perfume, and even hysterectomies — none of which were truly personalized or helpful to a woman’s long-term mental or physical health.
Of course, these diagnoses and treatments were — and still are — firmly rooted in sexist beliefs. Before the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century, women didn’t have rights independent of men, which ultimately left them without any option other than marriage and motherhood. Without a voice in the medical field or the world of public policy, women and their mental health issues were overlooked, stigmatized, and silenced for so many years.
The Turning Point
It wasn’t until the late 20th century that people began to recognize and validate women’s mental health issues. As women began to challenge societal norms and centuries-old gender roles, women’s mental health awareness — and mental health awareness in general — became a global talking point. Instead of writing off symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses, physicians began to diagnose and treat these conditions with various therapies and medications.
More importantly, men began to realize that women’s mental health was not literally tied to their reproductive organs. Rather, many illnesses were directly linked to hormones and the reproductive system as a whole. Menstruation, ovarian tumors and cysts, pelvic infections, childbirth, infertility, and hormone imbalances could cause very real — and often debilitating — physical and mental conditions. Furthermore, mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, and other conditions were often independent of reproductive health entirely.
A Modern Approach to Mental Health
These discoveries finally put the “hysteria” theory to rest in 1980 — only 30 years ago — as the American Psychological Association changed the diagnosis to “conversion disorder.” The field of psychology now recognizes a variety of women’s hormonal and mental health conditions that were historically known as hysteria, including dissociative and somatic symptom disorders.
Moreover, psychologists, physicians, and society as a whole now recognize dozens of common mental health disorders. Today, women can receive diagnoses and treatments for conditions such as postpartum depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and various eating disorders, which may or may not have fallen under a hysteria diagnosis centuries ago.
Battling the Stigma
While the word “hysteria” may be gone, the historical stigma surrounding women’s mental health treatment remains. Even today, physicians and the general public all too often tell women they’re imagining or exaggerating their symptoms. Many women still feel ashamed to open up about their struggles — especially in an era when societal pressure makes them feel they must juggle so many responsibilities perfectly and without complaint.
It’s important to remember that we need to be part of the movement to continue improving attitudes, accessibility, treatments, and conversations regarding mental health. This Women’s History Month, use your voice, your platform, and your personal experiences to connect with other women and remind the world that mental health awareness is not just an option — it is a necessity.
About the Author: Ginger Abbot is a lifestyle and learning writer who talks about mental health, career development, and personal growth. Read more of her work on Classrooms, where she serves as Editor and contributing writer.
Image credit unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios only.
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