Men, Women and Mental Health
Men and women are different. This is not the same as saying they should be treated differently, but different they are. On that note, I was struck by an elegant report in Newsweek that tracked the progress of medical research in men and women. The report begins by outlining the findings of Dr. Mark George at the NIMH, and his corresponding concerns that by publishing them he could find himself on the receiving end of some media backlash for reinforcing old gender stereotypes.
The basis of these concerns was the fact that George discovered physiological differences in the way male and female brain's responded to emotional stimuli. Using positron emission tomography (PET) scanning to trace brain activity, George asked male and female volunteers to recall their saddest memory. Although gender differences weren't on the agenda they presented themselves in the form of an eight times stronger reaction in the female brain. As good fortune would have it, common sense prevailed and the reaction Dr George feared never actually materialized. This is just as well because as more and more is being discovered about the differences between the male and female brain.
Roughly two out of every three people with depression are women. Even accepting the fact that men might be more ‘hidden' when it comes to depression, the statistics consistently show that women are more prone. According to scientists at McGill University, serotonin production is 53 percent higher in men's brains. If this is the case, it represents one of the biggest gender differences in human brains. Might the reserve of serotonin in the male brain provide greater protection against depression? Why don't women have the same amount of serotonin?
Questions like this still need answering, but in the meantime the Newsweek report points to a pending shift in the position of depression, from number four to number two in the rankings of the world's most devastating diseases. On current projections, 17.1 percent of all Americans will suffer at least one episode of major depression in their lifetime.
Anxiety disorders represent the single most common form of mental illness. Up to six million Americans are struck by symptoms of chronic worry, tension, panic attacks, headaches and other physical symptoms resulting from anxiety. Two thirds of all cases are women. The common denominator? You guessed it, the limbic system. According to Dr. Scott Rauch, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, the anterior paralimbic system is activated across all anxiety related disorders and all intense emotional states.
The way in which men an women use their brains is the focus of research at the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention. Dr. Sally Shaywitz, the codirector, reported that men tend to be left hemisphere dominant when it comes to basic tasks like reading. Women, it appears, use both hemispheres. Quite where such discoveries will lead is still open to speculation. What is clear is the fact that the more we learn the greater our chances are of finding treatments for some of the most debilitating diseases on the planet.