Sona Dimidjian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research addresses the treatment and prevention of depression, with a particular focus on the mental health of women during pregnancy and postpartum.
Richard J. Davidson is a leading expert on the study of emotions and how they affect well-being. He is the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
If you were told that nearly half of the people on the planet had a higher risk of developing a mental health disorder, what would you do? Would you help bring the issue to light? Or support better preventive care and education to help?
Surprisingly, this isn’t a fictitious statistic, but a reality we face. Compared to men, women are more likely to experience many of the most common mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and eating disorders.
These conditions have tremendous impact on well-being. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. And while it’s the leading cause among men and women, women and girls are twice as likely to experience it. Although there are multiple social determinants of mental health and well-being, gender is a powerful one.
Understanding why and how this plays out in our homes and communities, and what can be done about it is an important way to begin addressing the problem. There’s still stigma surrounding mental health disorders in most places, including the United States, that discourages people from seeking treatment when they need it.
There is much is at stake if we do nothing or ignore the importance of women’s well-being. So what can we do?
The good news is that we’re beginning to understand well-being and how we can learn it. Some of the research we’ve conducted over the years points to four components of well-being that can be measured in the brain and also can be changed with intentional training, including: resilience, attention, positive outlook, and generosity.
Simple secular meditation practices can influence these components in a way that promotes well-being. Based on recent studies, learning these skills can help protect at-risk women from experiencing depression during pregnancy and after giving birth. Only 18 percent of at-risk pregnant women who learned mindfulness and other well-being skills experienced depression, as compared to 50 percent of women who received usual care (most commonly psychotherapy or antidepressant medication).
We also are learning that these skills can be taught online. In other recent studies using the web-based program Mindful Mood Balance, we found that the ability to learn skills in their own homes, on their own time, is a major benefit for many women who are juggling family and work responsibilities. Sometimes, adding “self-care” can be just another item on the “to-do” list – so it is critical to deliver training in ways that women can access.
For women, cultivating the skill of well-being is an essential investment in their own futures, and potentially those of their children. If we can teach these skills to women during lifecycle transitions like pregnancy or to girls before the onset of adolescence, then maybe we can minimize the risk of mental health problems for both sexes throughout life.
It’s these kinds of preventive approaches that will pave our way forward. And it starts with you as an advocate to transform our healthcare systems, schools, workplaces, and mass media to promote well-being for women and, correspondingly, for all.
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