Women and mental health across the lifespan

Understanding mental health

Illustration of Good Mental Health

Our Australian population is diverse and addressing mental health issues from a gendered perspective is tricky. No two women are the same, and their experiences with mental health may be determined by a mix of factors such as, genetics, biology, age, gender, culture, environment, lifestyle and life experiences. We do however know, statistically, that certain mental health problems can be more prevalent for women, and that these can shift across stages of life.

Did you know? Women account for higher occurrences of some mental health concerns such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, non-suicidal self-injury and depression.

We can support women in our homes, schools, workplaces and communities by recognising and responding to the signs of developing, worsening or crisis point mental health problems.

Girls during the school years 

It’s never too early to start talking about mental health for children and young people. This is true for boys and girls. Experts suggest that around 1 in 7 Australian children (4 to 17) will experience a mental health problem. These numbers have been predicted to rise due to increased pressures on young people with the global pandemic. Adolescence is also a peak time for emergence of mental health problems – with around 50% of diagnosable adult mental health problems having onset before the age of 14 (ADGP, 2018). General population preventative mental health education is important, but so are efforts to capture the differences between girls, boys and students who are non-binary.

Snapshot of issues:

  • Anxiety commonly affects girls at a disproportionate rate than their male counterparts
  • A study by Murdoch Children’s Research Institute found that girls were more likely to suffer from bouts of depression in the teen years than boys.
  • Presentations of non-suicidal self-injury/self-harm are notably higher among girls and rates of hospitalisation for self-harm for young females have risen in the past decade (AIHW,2020).
  • Suicide is a leading cause of death for young people and the teen years are high risk (ABS,2020). While rates for boys/young men are higher, suicidal ideation and attempts are prevalent amongst girls/young women and intervention is crucial.
  • Adolescent girls are statistically at the greatest risk of developing eating disorders or disordered eating behaviours (Eating Disorders Victoria).
  • Bullying is an issue impacting boys and girls, however recent studies suggest “covert bullying” (which as significant psycho-social impacts) may be more common among girls.
  • An estimated 20% of girls experience sexual abuse, many before the age of 15 (Bravehearts, 2022). Teenage girls are the most likely to be victims of sexual assault (AIHW, 2020). Abuse, assault and harassment have long-term mental health impacts.
  • Coping with stress was a top issue highlighted by girls in the latest Mission Australia Survey.
  • LGBTQI+ youth experience much higher incidence of mental ill-health and suicide risk than cis gender peers (LGBTQI+ Health Australia, 2021).

Adult women – working, family (“doing it all”) and well-being

Adult women of working age experience all manner of stressors. This can include balancing education, work, family, social commitments, finances and household duties – all of which can impact mental health. This is again a diverse experience. Factors such as biology, heredity, socio-economic status, relationship status, culture, lifestyle and life experiences can all have a bearing on whether a woman develops mental health problems. It can be helpful to know that many problems are a fairly common, and something which women can receive support for.

One thing up for constant discussion is whether “doing/having it all” is possible for women. This centres on the notion that women need to have a family, maintain a home, build a career, and be socially active, while also looking and acting a certain way. This can put pressure on anyone. While many women like to care for others (as parents, partners and friends) while quietly “juggling the load”, no one should be expected to shoulder pressure without support. Women need to know that help is available – from the women and men in their homes, workplaces and social circles, and from professional services.

A limiting factor in help giving and help seeking are biases, stereotypes and stigmas about the way women and men handle mental health problems. Women for example are often seen as more likely to a) express emotions, b) talk about their problems with others c) seek help from a professionals such as a GP (comparative to many men). However this is not always true, leaving many to suffer in silence. There has also been a historic tendency for medical professionals and others to dismiss women’s health and wellbeing issues as ‘overly emotional’, ‘dramatic’ or ‘hysterical’ – none of these stereotypes is correct or helpful.

    Snapshot of issues:

    • Around 1 in 6 women experience depression in their lifetime. 1 in 3 experience anxiety. These issues disproportionately impact women at various ages (ABS, 2018).
    • More women overall report high to very high levels of psychological distress (ABS, 2018).
    • Some mental health disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are more than twice as likely to be experienced by women (AIHW, 2020).
    • A recent study of over 10,000 employers found that work stress and inequity is damaging to women, and that women trail men on several wellbeing indicators at work. Areas of concern included: insomnia (from stress), bullying and discrimination (Superfriend, 2020).
    • Family, domestic and sexual violence are significantly more likely to be perpetrated against women, with 1 in 3 women experience violence in their lifetime (ABS, 2017). This has significant impacts for safety, mental health and wellbeing.
    • Mental health problems relating to fertility, childbearing or parenting are a common burden. Around 1 in 5 mothers experiences post-natal depression (AIHW, 2010), and experiences such as ante-natal depression and post-partum psychosis are not uncommon. For other women, pressure around having children or inability to conceive can cause distress.
    • Work-life juggle continues to be a major problem for parents, but more often women bear the brunt. A report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found tthat 57% of employed and partnered mothers took part-time work to care for their children comparative to 9% of fathers. A lack of flexibility continues to be a source of family stress. Overall, Australia ranks 27th out of 35 OECD countries in terms of work-life balance (AIHW, 2017).
    • Relationship struggles are not unique to women, however a 10-year study with over 31,000 observations of gendered behaviour concluded that women are less happy in their long-term relationships (marriage and de facto) than men. Relationship struggles rank as a key problem impacting mental health (HILDA, 2015).
    • Suicide remains a concern for women across the lifespan. While suicide rates are higher for men, women still account for 25% of annual suicide deaths (ABS, 2020).

    Older women – ageing populations and mental health 

    Around 4.2 million of Australia’s population are aged over 65 (as at June 2020) with 53% of them women. As people age their ability to maintain physical, mental and social health can be hindered. Older Australian women may have to deal with stressors such as: social or physical isolation; changes to their bodies and primary health such as injuries and illness; personal loss and grief; and loss of financial independence after working age. Another factor impacting older people are preconceived stigmas and beliefs about mental health. Many older generation Australians may still believe in not sharing personal or private details which can make conversations about mental health challenging. Positively, various studies have shown women thriving beyond the retirement years, many with reduced incidences of issues such as anxiety from earlier life pressures.

    Snapshot of issues:

    • Depression for older people due to factors such as illness and personal loss is common (beyondblue). As people require intervention and living assistance, the likelihood of depression increases. Rates of depression for people in residential aged care for example are up to 35% (National Ageing Research Institute, 2009).
    • Adults over the age of 75 are in the age group most likely to experience loneliness (APS & Swinburne University 2018). For older women this can be due to physical and social isolation.
    • Physical and lifestyle factors for elderly women were found to have a large bearing on mental health in a longitudinal study by Monash University. Things such as poor physical activity and nutrition, and previous adverse life events, had impacts well into elder years.
    • Grief and loss is a common reality for older people. They will experience the loss of friends and loved ones. Often this will include a life partner such as a spouse. For women, with an overall longer life expectancy, this can be a more common and lengthy occurrence.
    • International studies have found that many older people fear loss of independence more than death. Worries about staying in their homes, self-care and moving into aged care facilities can cause distress.
    • Various studies have demonstrated that women often experience significant disadvantage from financial stress in retirement age due to a lack of superannuation and other income.

     How can we support women of all ages?

    There are things that everyone can do to support the girls and women in their homes, schools, workplaces and social circles.

    • Breaking the bias: We all have a role to play in understanding how some groups in society can be at inherent disadvantage through systemic inequities. Challenging stigmas, biases, myths and misconceptions about women’s mental health helps drive positive change.
    • Talk about women’s mental health: It’s good to talk generally about mental health and support for all, but it is also helpful to let girls and women know that some problems may more readily impact them, and to create positive dialogues about support options.
    • Look out for the signs and act: If you see a girl or woman you know dealing with something challenging or exhibiting worrying emotions, moods or behaviours it may be an indication of a mental health problem. Your support in a calm and genuine way can connect them with care.
    • Create supportive environments: Everyone deserves to thrive. Schools, workplaces and communities can consider the mental health needs of women, men, boys and girls and people who are gender diverse when designing supports.
    • Give women an active voice: Include girls and women in your mental health committees, decision making, resources and support roles. Giving women opportunities for equity and inclusion across all domains of life has benefits across community.
    • Model positive wellbeing and support: Women can consider the example they set particularly for younger women and girls in terms of mental health literacy, self-care, help-giving and help-seeking. Our women Mental Health First Aiders™ and Instructors are prime examples of this in action.
    • Create positive connections: Peer-to-peer connection is vital for social and emotional wellbeing and also community support networks. Girls and women can be empowered to support each other and themselves.
    • Get training! If you would like to support women (and men) in your school, workplace or community, then Mental Health First Aid® is a great first step. There are courses across the lifespan including: Standard MHFA (adult); Youth MHFA (for adults supporting young people); Teen MHFA (for young people supporting other young people); and Older Person MHFA (for adults supporting older people).

    For more information about International Women’s Day 2023 visit: https://www.internationalwomensday.com/


    Related articles that you may be interested in:

    Talking about Depression

    Recognising mental health problems in the time of the pandemic 

    Mental Health First Aid in practice 

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