By Natalia Gurevich, SWHR Communications Assistant
Depression is twice as common in women than in men, and is predicted to be the second leading cause of global mortality and disability by 2020 . The majority of older adults with depression or decreased cognitive function due to a medical disease, like dementia, are women . While it is clear that gender differences are a contributing factor in mental illness, diagnostics and treatments still lack enough comprehensive research.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression than men . Approximately 12 million women in the U.S. experience depression each year, and about one in every eight women develop clinical depression during their lifetime . Despite knowing this information, the causes and compounding factors are widely unknown, because large gaps still exist in our understanding. More research is needed to address these gaps.
Diagnosing mental illness can be more complex than diagnosing physical illness. “The DSM (the APA’s classification and diagnostic tool for psychiatric diagnoses) is built around the subjective rendering of symptoms from the patient to the clinician,” said Andrew Sperling, JD, Director of Federal Legislative Advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness at SWHR’s Second Annual Gala Symposium . “We would never diagnose heart disease on the basis of a cardiologist asking a patient on a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your chest pain?” 
The brain is nuanced and reflects different patterns based on age, gender, and a variety of other factors. Therefore, it is incredibly important to have the best possible information available when attempting to diagnose or treat mental illness. This requires conducting studies that reflect the diverse populations affected by mental illness. Despite advances made in the past decade, women are still underrepresented in clinical trials, including psychiatry .
A variety of factors cause lack of diversity in clinical trial subjects. For some it is as simple as lack of access, no means for transportation, or the inability to leave work to attend the study. For certain minority groups, these can include fears of immigration repercussions, fear of a lack of confidentiality, or lack of trust from past mistreatment in medical studies . Women also have difficulty joining medical studies if they are pregnant, as most studies don’t want to risk harming the fetus . Some individuals are afraid of the stigma attached to mental illness, and want to avoid any association . To better serve populations affected by mental illnesses through better tailored diagnoses, treatment, and care, research needs to include more diversity. It is incredibly important for women of all backgrounds to participate in these studies and trials.
The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR®) has always advocated strongly for diversity and greater inclusion of women in clinical trials. We believe mental health should be a high national priority. Psychiatric research should accurately reflect the affected population in order for everyone to receive the best possible care they need. Click here to learn more about SWHR’s work in clinical trials.
- Andrew Sperling, JD, Director of Federal Legislative Advocacy, National Alliance on Mental Health. The Society for Women’s Health Research Second Annual Gala Symposium: The State of Women’s Health. March 22, 2017.
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The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR ®) is a national non-profit based in Washington D.C. that is widely recognized as the thought-leader in promoting research on biological differences in disease and is dedicated to transforming women’s health through science, advocacy, and education.