Emotional Health in Young Women

Emotional Health in Young Women

The 2017 National Australia Bank wellbeing survey of over 2000 Australians showed that young women aged 18-29 years report the poorest wellbeing of all Australians. In fact, almost half the young women in the survey reported experiencing high levels of anxiety on the day before the survey. Does this come as a surprise? Probably not. According to a more comprehensive survey of mental illness in Australia, young women aged 16-24 had the highest prevalence of mental disorders1. Young women reported more than double the rate of anxiety disorders compared to male peers and significantly more than older women. Rates of suicide in young Australian women are also high and on the rise. In 2010, the age-specific suicide rate for young women aged 15-19 year olds was 3.4 deaths per 100,000. By 2015, this rate had more than doubled to 7.8. We know that there are a number of biological factors that place women at greater risk of anxiety and depression such as fluctuations in sex hormones (like oestradiol and progesterone)2, yet there are a number of other social factors at play. We need to pay serious attention to this developmental period, making sure young women have adequate and affordable access to effective support and services.

What is it about this life period that leads to increased anxiety and depression for women?

In the past, adulthood has been defined by milestones such as moving out of home, a long-term relationship, full-time work, and starting a family. Based on these markers, becoming an adult is now, in a sense, delayed. Compared to previous decades, young women are now more likely to be living with their parents, less likely to be part of a couple and older when they have their first child. This delay in adulthood in recent generations has led developmental theorists to identify a new developmental stage: ‘emerging adulthood.’

Emerging adults face a number of economic hardships with reduced housing affordability, and unemployment rates that are much higher than any other time in their adult life. Emerging adults are also the most likely group to experience violence and there are still significantly greater rates of physical and emotional abuse of women compared to men. In fact, one in four Australian women have experienced emotional abuse from their partner and one in five young women report experiencing sexual violence.

While we have made significant headway for young women in terms of opportunities for work and an increasing number of female role models (including Australia’s first female prime minister), the national gender pay gap has not substantially changed in the last two decades. There are still inherent gender inequities in our society that significantly contribute to the problem.

Is this part of a worldwide epidemic?

Although we have seen an increase in suicide rates in young women, studies that compare prevalence rates over time have shown that there has not been an increase in prevalence of mental disorders3. So, it seems the rates of disorders are not increasing. When we look more generally at psychological distress, there is evidence from several countries around the world that there has been a significant increase in psychological distress reported in both children and adults over the last few decades4. In one systematic review of symptoms in children and young people, there was evidence of an increase in anxiety and low mood in teenage girls5.

What can we do about it?

There are a number of important mental health initiatives that remind us to look out for those around us, like RUOK day and mental health month in October. The most effective first line of treatment for anxiety and depression is cognitive behavioural therapy. This is a treatment that helps the young person develop strategies to regulate their emotions by challenging thinking patterns that have perhaps sabotaged them in the past and by gradually facing difficult situations.  If you or a friend is experiencing anxiety, worry, depression or low mood, good help is available, if you know where to find it. There are services available for young women including headspace and Mindspot’s mood mechanic course. The Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University also provides treatment for young people with anxiety and depression.

There are a number of other self-care strategies as well that can help to maintain wellbeing such as regular sleep, regular exercise and healthy eating. Regular and restful sleep is a key to positive well-being and our ability to regulate emotions. Getting enough sleep can be particular challenging for young people when work, study and play can occur at irregular times. There are many e-mental health tools and apps now available that can help you monitor to mood, sleep and anxiety.

  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. NATIONAL SURVEY OF MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLBEING: SUMMARY OF RESULTS. Catalogue No.: 4326.0. Canberra2007.
  2. Li SH, Graham BM. Why are women so vulnerable to anxiety, trauma-related and stress-related disorders? The potential role of sex hormones. The Lancet Psychiatry 2017;4:73-82.
  3. Baxter AJ, Scott KM, Ferrari AJ, Norman RE, Vos T, Whiteford HA. Challenging the myth of an “epidemic” of common mental disorders: trends in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression between 1990 and 2010. Depression and anxiety 2014;31:506-16.
  4. Collishaw S, Maughan B, Natarajan L, Pickles A. Trends in adolescent emotional problems in England: a comparison of two national cohorts twenty years apart. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2010;51:885-94.
  5. Bor W, Dean AJ, Najman J, Hayatbakhsh R. Are child and adolescent mental health problems increasing in the 21st century? A systematic review. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2014;48:606-16.
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