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The facts say it all: so why aren’t we talking about mental illness?

March 8, 2013
Diary Drawings: Day 610 - Barbican - Jon Snow - 9 months stored up thoughts condensed into 40 minutes (Credit: Bobby Baker, from 'Diary Drawings: Mental illness and me, 1997-2008' )

Diary Drawings: Day 610 – Barbican – Jon Snow – 9 months stored up thoughts condensed into 40 minutes (Credit: Bobby Baker, from ‘Diary Drawings: Mental illness and me, 1997-2008’ )

With International Women’s Day and Mothering Sunday falling on the same weekend this year, there will be millions of women the world-over coming together to talk, laugh, and debate hot topics. But although some of you may share what’s on your mind, how many of you will be talking about your mental health? Emma Rhule looks at the stats and the stigma surrounding women and mental illness.  

This Mothering Sunday, A Woman Under the Influence, will be the second film to be screened as part of the Wonder on Film series. Directed by John Cassavetes, the film follows a few months in the lives of an American family as the mother’s, Mabel (Gina Rowlands), increasingly erratic behaviour results in her husband, Nick (Peter Falk), having her admitted for psychiatric treatment.

From the Ancient Greeks, through the attics and asylums of the Victorian era, to the modernist Bloomsbury set and the Bell Jar, women and mental illness have always been strongly associated in art and culture. And not without reason. A report published by the World Health Organisation1 states that women are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression. But why is this? And why, despite all the facts and the fiction, do we talk about it so rarely?

Many of the factors that experts consider as high risk for mental illness are particularly relevant for women, such as gender based violence, low income and/or income inequality and long term, full-time responsibility for the care of others. Major changes or upheavals in life can also be a trigger for mental illness. One of the biggest changes in a woman’s life (and for men too!) can be starting a family.  More than half of all women will experience the ‘baby blues’ within the first few days of giving birth and one in ten women will experience post-natal depression. We explored the subject of post-natal depression in this short film created as part of the Science on Film series.

In the years since 1974, when A Woman Under the Influence was released, there have been major scientific, technological and cultural advances, yet our attitudes to mental health seem to have changed little. With one in four people (both men and women) likely to suffer from a mental illness in any given year, many of us will be affected in some way during our lives.  Despite being relatively common, there is still a large degree of stigma attached to mental illness. Indeed, many sufferers of mental illness say that the discrimination they experience can be ‘a bigger burden than the illness itself’2; the perceived stigma of having a mental illness can make it more difficult for people to get or keep a job, make friends, or even seek help for their illness. 

 It is widely recognised that mental illness is under diagnosed. Less than half of the people who present with diagnosable symptoms are identified by their GP’s. This is compounded by the reluctance of many to discuss their experiences; just two in every five people who experience issues with mood, anxiety or substance abuse seek help within the first year3.

There are few gender differences in overall rates of mental illness, including relatively rare illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which affect approximately 2% of the population. There are however substantial differences in the presentation of high prevalence illnesses, depression included. For instance, one in four British women are likely to be treated for depression over the course of their lifetime compared to just one in ten men.  In contrast, 67% of Brits who consume alcohol at ‘hazardous’ levels, and 69% of people dependent on illegal drugs (excluding cannabis), are male4.

A Woman Under the Influence may not seem the most obvious choice for a Mother’s Day outing – Richard Dreyfuss described it as the ‘most incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie’. But, with an Oscar award winning performance from Gina Rowlands, the film presents an opportunity to think about mental illness and the social stigma still attached to issues surrounding mental health. A visit to the Barbican this weekend may just be the perfect way to start the conversation.

 ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ is playing as part of the Wonder season at the Barbican on 10 March at 14.00. For more information about the series, visit the Wonder on Film website.



  1. Murray, J.L., and Lopez, A.D. (1996). The global burden of disease: A comprehensive assessment of mortality and disability from diseases, injuries and risk factors in 1990 and projected to 2020. Summary. Boston: Harvard School of Public Health, World Health Organization.
  2. Corry, P (2008). Stigma shout. Time to Change
  3. World Health Organization, International Consortium of Psychiatric Epidemiology. 2000. Cross- national comparisons of mental disorders. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 78: 413-426.
  4. The Office for National Statistics Psychiatric Morbidity report, 2001
4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2013 10:49 am

    Wow, references and everything. Great post. I do think that this type of conversation may be more fitting on “health awareness day” or some such thing, as women’s and mother’s days are more to celebrate the positive and elevate respect for women, not talk about problems unique to them. Although the following may be a good fit:

    1. A discussion about how depression caused by nutrient deficiencies may be dismissed by doctors because they think depression (or “hysteria”) is a woman’s natural state.

    2. How women’s low pay is similar and related to the low pay that nurses, educators, vet techs etc get because caregiving professions are considered less important than say athletics.

  2. March 8, 2013 12:36 pm

    Reblogged this on Belledelettres's Blog and commented:
    I remember so vividly the first time I told a group of friends that I had depression. Total silence then change of subject. Second time, different friends, total support and acceptance.

  3. March 8, 2013 11:31 pm

    wonderful. wish i could be there!

  4. March 11, 2013 3:18 am

    Part of the reason for not seeing help for the illness, might be that the “cure” isn’t obvious (not more than the diagnosis). Most people don’t want to be popping a pill (what will the real effect be? How will it affect my functioning? How can the doctor be sure I haven’t been diagnosed with the wrong psychological disorder?). As for counseling, it is hard for a sufferer to imagine sitting with a stranger and getting better from it – more than any other disease, it seems to be one where the cure is not “free”.

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