Women more unhappy than men until they reach mid-80s

From THE TIMES, 14 December 2017:

Women are more miserable than men for almost their entire lives and are happier only after the age of 85, according to a large NHS survey.

It found that women get progressively happier in retirement before overtaking men in their ninth decade. Psychiatrists say that this may be because so many are widowed by then.

Growing numbers of Britons are reporting consistent unhappiness, the Health Survey for England found, with women more likely to report severe problems at almost every age.

Twenty-eight per cent of women aged 16-24 have mental health problems bad enough to count as a disorder, compared with 16 per cent of men, the survey of 8,000 people found. While the gender gap narrows between 25 and 34, when 18 per cent of both sexes have probable mental disorders, women become unhappier as they enter middle age, with 24 per cent classifiable as mentally ill at 45 to 54.

Kate Lovett, dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that women may be more miserable because they “are still more likely to bear the brunt of domestic and caring responsibilities”. This burden may lessen in old age, when they are no longer responsible for children and elderly parents at the same time. Sixteen per cent have severe problems over the age of 65, falling to 14 per cent over 85. Nineteen per cent of men of this age appear to have a mental disorder.

Dr Lovett said: “Men who are single, widowed or divorced are more vulnerable to developing depression and men who are in this age bracket may be more likely to be on their own. Paradoxically married women are often more likely to develop depression.”

Experts said that women were more likely to speak out about their problems, which may help to explain why the suicide rate among men is three times higher than among women.

The health survey asked 12 questions in which people rate their general levels of happiness, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance and self-confidence. Those scoring more than four on a twelve-point scale are thought likely to have mental health problems, although a doctors’ consultation would be needed for a formal diagnosis. Overall, 19 per cent of adults appear to have a mental illness because of consistent unhappiness, lack of enjoyment and feelings of worthlessness, up a quarter in four years. “Across the age groups, but particularly in the young, it is cause for serious concern for us as a society,” Dr Lovett said.

She said that the reasons for rising rates of unhappiness needed to be investigated urgently, looking at economic problems and the role of social media. “The impact of individual suffering and the economic impact are enormous,” she added.

Stephen Buckley, of the charity Mind, said: “Thankfully women are more likely to also speak out about their mental health and seek support from services.”

Youth mental illness is up almost half since 2012 and the findings confirm a detailed survey last year that reported that one in four young women suffered from a mental health condition, with similar numbers self-harming.

Tom Madders of the charity YoungMinds, said: “We are facing a mental health crisis for children and young people. We know that teenagers are facing a wide range of pressures, including stress at school, bullying, body issues and the added pressure of the 24/7 online world. Girls may also be affected by early sexualisation, and the feeling that their life needs to be as perfect as pictures in newsfeeds.”

Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, hit out at Facebook and other social media giants last week for fuelling mental health problems in children.

Previous data has shown that use of antidepressants has more than doubled over the past decade, with 65 million prescriptions last year, and the survey also finds that 48 per cent of adults are on medication. This includes 24 per of people taking three or more drugs and 5 per cent taking more than eight.

Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “High prescription rates shouldn’t always be seen as a bad thing . . . More medications are now available and can increasingly be used to prevent illness and to improve health. We also have a growing, ageing population in the UK so inevitably, more and more patients are living with multiple, long-term conditions, many of which need to be treated with medication. Nevertheless, GPs do strive to explore non-pharmacological treatments where appropriate.”

Analysis
As a society, we have become much more comfortable speaking about mental illness. Depression is no longer the stigmatising label it once was, so one would expect doctors to be seeing more mental illness, even if rates had not changed.

It is possible that wider acceptance of mental health problems means that we are more likely to own up to our negative feelings. But the findings of the Health Survey for England are similar to a study last year, suggesting that something real is going on.

Social media, millennial “snowflake” attitudes or precarious employment are offered as explanations, but the causes of rising rates of mental illness are yet to be established. If the rates of an infectious disease were rising so quickly, it is difficult to believe that we would be so slow finding out why.