This has been a difficult post to write. There’s so much I want to say about women and female-identifying people and mental health, but the words just don’t want to come. Do you ever have that? Anyway, here’s my best shot. TW for discussion of suicide and refusal to medicate.
In my opinion, there is an entrenched sexism in hospitals and GPs. There we go, I’ve said it. I’ve had many a conversation with my boyfriend about this, as he is a medical student. He’s told me about how much of an emphasis his medical school has put on equality of treatment, which is fantastic. However, I just can’t help but think that, from my experiences, institutionalised sexism is alive and well.
For example: A good friend of mine is very unwell. She has depression, anxiety, OCD, and generally finds life hard. This has been going on for years, with varying levels of suicidal thoughts and feelings. It took over five doctors for her to finally be diagnosed and medicated. None of her doctors would believe her, probably because she’s quite quiet and understated. Another good friend of mine had a bit of a bad spell last year – he found it very difficult to leave the house. He was immediately medicated by the first doctor he saw, and was sent to a therapist for CBT. He is quite stereotypically British in his own right – a stiff upper lip, and all that. The interesting thing? Both of my friends went to the same doctor. My female friend was denied medication.
Now, these illnesses are different, yes, but other female friends of mine have told me about similar experiences – doctors dismissing their feelings, refusing to put them on medication, or changing their medications without warning. While not quite told that they’re being female and hysterical, there is a clear degree of sexism. I personally think this is because of the statistical evidence about suicide. The 2016 Samaritans report shows that suicide rates are:
When you look at it, it makes a terrible kind of sense. Men are still told by society that they should ‘man up’ and not express their true emotions because they’ll be thought of as weak or, God forbid, womanly. They don’t get help, and therefore are more likely to commit suicide. However, I don’t think that women should be unfairly punished by the fact that we do often seek help. Just because I am statistically less likely to commit suicide does not make my cry for help any less significant than a man’s.
When I first mentioned to my friends that I was thinking about asking my doctor for medication, they sat me down and told me how to ensure I would get them. They told me what to mention and how to act – for example, I’m very good at putting on a brave face. I like looking put together, even when my life is falling apart. I almost never go outside without a full face of makeup. They told me I needed to be in floods of tears, and that if I arrived at the doctor looking as I normally do, I probably would not get help. I had to literally manipulate the system in order to get the medication that I so desperately needed. Simply going to the doctor was not enough. I had to ‘prove’ myself to be in danger. For some reason, I don’t think a man in my position would have to do that.
Now, I’m not saying that going to the doctor is useless, or that all doctors are misogynistic – that would be ridiculous. I’m saying that health services are, ultimately, hugely overworked institutions filled with older doctors. Sometimes personalised care is difficult, because there are so many people looking for help. I think that this is an area where feminism is desperately needed – I have no doubt that by encouraging men to speak out about their emotions and about their mental health, suicide rates will go down. The lives of men, women and non-gender conforming folks can be saved when everyone’s life is considered equal, and when women like me no longer need to prove themselves to be just as worthy of medication as men.
(I also think that there is also a racial aspect to this as well – people of colour are most certainly under-diagnosed. However, as I’m white, I can’t really talk about specific experiences with this. I’d be very interested to know what other people think.)
What do you think about this? Is this just my experience? Am I reading too much into this? What about other things, like sexuality and age? Let me know!