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My mother spent over three decades of her life going to an office six days a week. The 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule, preceded and followed by cooking, caring and cleaning duties at home, continued until she resigned one fine day. Her job ended. But my mother has continued being a working woman – just like every homemaker, rarely complaining about the toll it can take on her mental health. As most typical moms tend to do, she hardly ever admits that taking care of the home, managing bills, groceries, as well as everyone’s likes, dislikes, moods and more, while keeping her desires on the backburner, has been harder than any job she has done before. But do we notice it enough? Do we acknowledge it as much as we should? Well, the reason why I ask is because of startling numbers that caught my eye.
According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, in 2021, housewives accounted for 51.5 percent of the total female victims of suicide (23,179 out of 45,026). They constituted nearly 14.1 percent of total victims who died by suicide (23,179 out of 1,64,033) during 2021, and that, IMO, is reason enough to mull over the need for more awareness and attention towards mental health care for homemakers.
Between taking care of her parents, siblings, husband, in-laws, children, friends and many more people, a woman rarely finds the time to take care of herself. While clarion calls for self-care activities are rampant on social media, one wonders how many women really indulge in it in real life.
In a world where women are always expected to wear the invisible cape of ‘superwomen’ – whether they are working at home or working in an office – the weight of expectations can easily weigh them down.
“Women have always faced social pressures related to early marriage, family problems, having children, running the family and social conformity. With the changing societal structures, more women are stepping out into the workforce and taking on multiple roles. Yet the larger burden of responsibilities and day-to-day family functioning in the larger section of the society comes on women. This leads to unequal distribution of the burden, causing more stress and health-related concerns,” clinical psychologist Dr Mimansa Singh Tanwar tells Health Shots.
As the expert puts it succinctly, the “social conditioning” of taking care of everyone’s needs and everything else is strongly embedded within the belief system of a woman.
“This often results in their own emotional needs and physical stress being denied, neglected, ignored, and dismissed. As a society, normalization of such practices continues to exist. We don’t encourage women enough to open up and talk about their stress. Even the challenges of low social and economic status despite education, empowerment and the persistent expectation to better themselves in every role, contributes to the pressure they experience,” adds Dr Tanwar.
In homes where there is gender-based violence, the psychological impact on women is far too severe for them to handle on their own.
“During Covid-19, we saw an alarming rise in the data (of violence against women). Sexual and physical violence from partners has a huge psychological impact, causing them to lose their sense of agency and experience trauma, fear, isolation and mental health problems such as depression and suicidal behaviour. These come from feeling helpless and hopeless about the circumstance,” explains Dr Tanwar, who works at the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis National Mental Health Program.
Together, social, cultural and psychological factors have a significant role to play in a woman’s mental health. Alongside, lack of adequate support systems, unaddressed and untreated emotional issues within families, organizations and communities increases their susceptibility to developing significant stress and mental health related illnesses.
Over recent years, women have been urged to speak up instead of being silent sufferers. Yet, feelings of shame, guilt and discomfort in sharing about their stress, can sometimes get the better of them. At other times, their feelings and struggles, may also be responded with an implicit bias of exaggeration and dismissal which only adds to the self-stigma, reinforcing their feelings of self-blame, Dr Tanwar adds.
Women must begin to prioritize mental health, engage in self-care practices and reach out for help when they need it. Watch out for signs like feeling persistent sadness, social withdrawal, loss of interest in activities, struggle in day-to-day functioning, sleep disturbances, crying spells, feeling helplessness and persistent negative thoughts. Open up about it to your families and friends, or seek professional help.
Families can play a significant role by being more sensitive to a woman’s needs and provide support in day-to-day functioning by sharing responsibilities. Even encouraging women to prioritize their health, watching out for signs and symptoms of mental health conditions and ensuring that they seek regular treatment, can go a long way in strengthening the support system. It is important to build more awareness, sensitization on mental health and provide them timely help and support.
Healthcare providers should also include mental health checkup as a part of preventive health programs. Gynecologists and other primary healthcare providers should look out for the signs of mental health problems that women may develop given they can be first responders to their stress-related health issues.
Communities must build stronger support system by having zero tolerance to violence and providing all support services. Additionally, making these services easily accessible to women is also an equally critical aspect of prevention and intervention.
It is important to include a mental health curriculum and gender sensitivity in schools. Over the years, various social influences, stereotypes and perceptions shape our identities and belief systems both about health and gender. To bring about a change in the narrative of how we approach mental health and gender, a genuine effort needs to be put collectively into nurturing it in the developmental years.