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Why Do Women Get Depressed?

It's not just a question of hormones.

Key points

  • We still apply gender prejudices to our understanding of women's depression.
  • Women's emotional flexibility may in fact make them stronger.
  • Reasons behind the female statistical excess in the depression statistics are likely not reducible to mere hormone imbalances.
Source: KILLEPICS/Pixabay

Epidemiological studies have consistently shown that women are about twice as likely to become depressed at some point in their lives as men. The World Health Organization tells us that depression is the main source of "disease burden" (the overall impact of ill health) for women worldwide.

Treatment-Resistant Depression

Unfortunately, research studies have shown that many depression sufferers do not recover fully with treatment. The majority of these treatment-resistant individuals are women, simply because most depression sufferers are women. Three-quarters of the participants in an influential study on treatment-resistant depression conducted in a specialist center in South London some years ago were women, a fact so unsurprising for the authors of the study that they did not even feel the need to comment on it.

Depression is a very real clinical problem, but treatment-resistant depression is not a clinically neutral concept, as those who don't respond to standard treatments (mainly women, remember) are often labeled as having personality issues. This means that she may end up feeling that she is being blamed for her depression.

Social Complacency About Female Depression

We need to ask ourselves whether there is, perhaps, a degree of social complacency about female depression. If sadness is the result of our lost battles with a hostile world, some may take the condescending view that women are less resilient than men and therefore more likely to be depressed and to stay depressed after treatment. The reality, however, is that women face very challenging social demands, and yet their "social value" is disproportionately affected by their physical appearance and by their ability to project the image of a good mother, even at the highest strata of society, as sociologists have repeatedly shown us.

Let's consider the issue of perceived weakness and resilience in relation to gender, and I hope you'll forgive me if I overgeneralize things a little so as to convey the message more clearly. One could argue that when a woman becomes depressed she is acknowledging the sadness of adversity. In contrast, some men confronting adversity or loss don't acknowledge feeling sad, becoming enraged instead. Anger is their depression. So women tend to "flex" painfully with the winds of adversity, whereas some men, rigid with futile defiance, simply snap. Because of this, many more women get depressed, but more men tragically take their own lives. From this point of view, flexing with the pain of depression, rather than snapping, is in fact a type of strength.

Women's emotions are "almost always less under control of the will than in men, being usually more volatile and displaying a greater tendency to childishness," asserted Mr. G.J. Romanes, Fellow of the Royal Society, in a lecture he gave at the Royal Institution in 1887. One wonders to what extent we may still carry these prejudices with us when we attribute female depression to their perceived psychological fragility.


The National Institute of Mental Health informs us in their Web site that hormones are often to blame for women's melancholy. The Mayo Clinic Web site also mentions hormones as a major contributor to their depression and mentions premenstrual syndrome as an example of the psychological havoc that these hormone imbalances can play in a woman's mind. Reproductive systems and menstrual cycles always seem to be somehow implicated in a woman's depression. Classical textbooks would say that they challenge the "economy" of their physiologies. However, the reasons behind the female statistical excess in the depression statistics are probably very complex and not reducible to mere hormone imbalances.

Depression is an illness, not an inherent female trait. When an antidepressant tablet doesn't help, which happens in a significant proportion of all cases, the depression doesn't automatically mutate into an unfortunate expression of female weakness, or a mere result of their reproductive physiology, or a personality defect. It is still depression, but one that will require a better treatment.