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Depression - are female students more prone to mental health disorders?

Depression - are female students more prone to mental health disorders? by Punam Mohandas
by Punam Mohandas  @PunamMohandas
Two years ago, I had a female student who was just so contrary and sly. She complained about me to her father for no reason, who then complained to the Director of my Faculty. A few days later, the student sent me a message saying she's always mentally and emotionally disturbed around the days leading to her mother's birthday and – death anniversary! Sure, it helped me to understand her behaviour better and I could even feel some sympathy (although the damage her complaint did to my professional record was only slightly mitigated).

This semester, I have a girl student who's been candid enough to tell me that she suffers from a mental health issue. She hasn't specified exactly what it is and I haven't asked too many probing questions, for fear of being considered insensitive; since we're still teaching online, things don't always come across the way they're intended to and as they would face-to-face. Fortunately, as she has shared this nugget of information, I'm able to be as supportive as the circumstances allow, by permitting her to keep her camera switched off in class, for instance, or letting her choose to participate in class discussions depending on how she's feeling that day.

Recently, just a couple of days ago, in fact, I conducted a graded essay assignment, in which I was utterly taken aback to read one of my brighter female students write on how she was suffering from depression and how music helped to assuage and help with her illness and brighten her mood.

All of these incidents set me off to thinking: Why are more and more students these days complaining of mental health issues? Also, why does it seem skewed towards my girl students? Is there, in fact, some gender gene chromosome responsible for this, or is it just my fertile imagination at work?

You could have knocked me down with a feather, when my research led to the conclusion that women are more likely than men to be suffering from depression, because they reach puberty earlier than men do.

In 2015, the Cosmos Institute of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences (CIMBS) India, conducted a study among more than 500 college students in the age group of 18-25 in the Delhi-NCR region and found that 74% complaining of anxiety symptoms were female; 22% of those with suicide or self-harm thoughts were female (compared to 12.8% male) and 72% of those stressed by academic and career uncertainties were female. 

A Chinese study conducted by Wenjuan Gao, Siqing Ping, Xinqiao Liuin 2019 of 1,892 undergraduate students from 15 universities in China over a four year period, found the ratio of female students suffering from anxiety was notably higher than the males (for whom it was largely depression), which was related to academic issues as well as body image.)

Puberty and menstruation bring about hormonal changes in our bodies and the fluctuating hormones can affect the mood, which is already at risk from other influences such as peer pressure, familial conflicts and trying to deal with the onset of sexual attraction to the opposite/same sex. To this already murky mix, one can further add PMS symptoms such as bloating (which impacts one's attractiveness in one's own eyes) or worse, heavy bleeding/period cramps. 

No definite link has yet been established between PMS and depression, but it's quite possible that the hormones can affect chemicals in the brain, as we see with post-natal depression.

While some schools do think pastoral care is important and include the same, some universities offer what is optimistically termed 'Student Counselling', which, unfortunately, is limited to academics or problems between students-lecturers.

In a few studies I read, I learned that compared to boys, girls who are depressed have feelings of guilt, low self-worth, low energy, eating disorders and suchlike, which they carry forward into their lives. Therefore, it's vital for universities to have professional counsellors on board, to deal with any angst or issues that arise with puberty pangs. I'm not quite sure if this happens yet in most Asian countries because culturally, we're expected to turn to family to resolve problems and not to therapists. (Overall, mental health is a taboo subject.)

Lecturers who are multi-tasking counselling with teaching often don't have enough time to devote to their advisees, nor the requisite psychological training that is required for such delicate handling.

Here, my recommendation is that it's crucial that advisors be professionals who are dedicated to this work only.

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Wednesday, 29 May 2024

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