Women's mental health is deteriorating as increasing numbers seek help from psychiatrists, new figures show. The burdens of keeping a job, raising children and looking after elderly parents are driving more than ever before to the edge of a nervous breakdown, experts say.
The number of women referred to NHS specialist psychiatric services is rising faster than among men. Women accounted for more than half (56 per cent) of the 1.2 million referrals for outpatient and inpatient treatment last year, and the gap between the sexes is widening. The total needing specialist psychiatric help was up 3.4 per cent on the previous year but women accounted for 70 per cent of this growth in demand, shows a report from the NHS Information Centre.
In January, a survey of psychiatric services published by the NHS Information Centre showed a rise of more than 12 per cent in the proportion of women suffering depression and anxiety since the mid-1990s. There was no increase in mental problems among men.
Experts said the growing number of elderly parents living into their 80s and 90s was adding to the caring responsibilities of women, already juggling demands of work and children, leading some to struggle under the extra pressure. With job losses and cuts in income looming in the recession, demands were likely to grow disproportionately on women who carry the main caring role, they said.
Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, the mental health charity, said: "One statistical report is easy to dismiss but when you get two pieces of evidence telling you the same thing it looks like something is going on. Undoubtedly, there is a combination of factors affecting women which mean they face greater challenges, maintaining work-life balance and caring responsibilities. Where there is increasing pressure at work and at home, it is often women who are expected to bear the brunt."
Women accounted for at least 60 per cent of callers to the Mind information line, offering help and advice to people with mental problems, he added. It is known that women are better at acknowledging difficulties and coming forward to seek help for them.
Simon Lawton-Smith, the head of policy at the Mental Health Foundation, said the charity was considering how to respond to the emerging trend. "I think this [the deteriorating mental health of women] is worth looking at. The biggest increase in mental problems was among women in mid-life aged 45 to 64. Perhaps it is time to think about this group and where the problems are and what support we can provide."
A 2003 report by the charity Women at the Crossroads showed how many women in mid-life found themselves in a poverty trap, as a result of lower pay, part-time working and divorce. They were less likely to own their home, had lower status at work and carried a greater share of household duties.
Mr Lawton-Smith said: "The biggest change has been in caring responsibilities. We now have our parents living into their 80s and 90s being looked after by women in their 40s and 50s. Budgets for the statutory services are tight; the policy is to keep elderly people at home so the pressures of caring are increasing. It is evident that there is extra pressure on women in this age group."
Marjorie Wallace, the chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, said: "It is no surprise there is an increasing number of women accessing mental health services. Almost two-thirds of calls to our helpline are women, many of whom are in their 30s or 40s, for whom their most productive years have become their most anxious years. Many may be struggling under the increasing burdens placed upon them as breadwinners, as well as being carers for their children and ageing parents."
Research for the NHS Information Centre, by the National Centre for Social Research and the University of Leicester, and published last January, found 21.5 per cent of women aged 16 to 64 suffered from a common mental disorder such as depression and anxiety during 2007, compared with 19.1 per cent in 1993, a 12.5 per cent increase. The problem was most serious among those aged 45 to 64, where the proportion affected increased by a fifth.
Neta Hollings, the programme manager for mental health at the NHS Information Centre, said: "Women may be better at recognising problems and seeking help. Or it may be something in our lives, but we don't know what it is."
'Without support, I would have had a breakdown'
*Rebekah Khan, 39, from Cambridgeshire, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2007, after previously being treated for a personality disorder. She is now receiving treatment from a specialist psychiatrist after developing panic attacks.
"My ex-partner was a ward manager in a hospital, and he recognised that all the ups and downs I'd had put me in danger of having a breakdown. I was pregnant with my third child, a little girl, at the time I was diagnosed, and he agreed to take responsibility for my two sons so I could concentrate on looking after my life and hers. If I hadn't had that support I probably would have had a breakdown immediately.
"But women are still the ones who carry the burden of a family. They are also the ones who have felt the effects of the financial crisis most keenly, because they have so much pressure on them: they have to be the Delia Smith of the house, looking after the children but also having a career.
"You don't have the support system that you used to. The more independence you have, the less support you have. I used to be a career woman, but now it's a job just to look after myself and my little daughter."
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