Beware of 'having it all' – for the sake of your sanity . . .
Research has found that women have higher rates of mental illness. Author Allison Pearson isn't surprised
Published 04/06/2013 | 05:00
Eleven years ago, I had a breakdown. I didn't really notice it as I was too busy. Look, I didn't have time to have a breakdown, okay? We were living in New York for five months.
I had written a novel about a working mother who is struggling to juggle a career, two small children, a lovely but largely useless husband and a to-do list that contains 36 items, and never seems to get any shorter. Kate Reddy hadn't got a minute to herself. At work, she worried about home. At home, she fretted about work.
The novel struck a chord. I found myself on a book tour of the States: 23 cities in 27 days. Arriving back in New York, I knew I had to be with my children, who were grizzly and starved of the solace that only Mummy can give; and I had to get my clothes cleaned for the next phase of appearances.
Standing by the wardrobe, I thought, "Must take jacket to dry cleaners." The dry cleaners was just a block away. No distance at all. "Must take jacket to dry cleaners." It was easy. All I had to do was pick up the jacket, get to the shop, hand over the jacket, collect the ticket and come back. I went through these steps many times in my head. "Must take jacket to dry cleaners." But first, I would have a little lie down on the bed. I lay down on the bed.
Four days later, I hadn't moved. What happened isn't clear to me. There were hushed voices, doors opened and closed. Time thickened like a sauce. A psychiatrist came and went. There were little green tablets in a plastic cup to take. I woke one afternoon and Himself was close to my face. "I have to take my jacket to the dry cleaners," I said.
"It's okay, darling. Don't worry. I'll take care of it."
I had always been able to step on the accelerator in times of stress. Mothers do. There was plenty in the tank to meet the next deadline, strip the beds, do the weekly shop, book the holidays, organise the birthday party. This was the first time in my life that I had put my foot down on the floor and the engine didn't respond. It was terrifying.
Like many working women at the start of the 21st Century, it turned out I was running on empty, or 'Having It All'. That lost week in New York was my first, brief introduction to mental illness. I put it behind me and carried on as crazily as I had before; but it would be back, next time bringing the heavy guys with it.
So it comes as no surprise to learn that a new book The Stressed Sex: Uncovering the Truth about Men, Women and Mental Illness reveals that women experience far more mental health problems than men due to the stress of juggling many roles. According to Professor Daniel Freeman of Oxford University, women have higher rates of depression, panic disorders, eating disorders, phobias and insomnia
Prof Freeman has discovered that psychological disorders are 20 to 40pc more common in females than chaps.
He says: "Increasingly, women are expected to function as carer, homemaker and breadwinner. Given that domestic work is undervalued, and considering that women tend to be paid less, find it harder to advance in a career, have to juggle multiple roles, and are bombarded with images of apparent female 'perfection', it would be surprising if there weren't some kind of emotional and psychological cost."
You know, I reckon Prof Freeman should get out more. Or just read a copy of any women's magazine from the past 30 years. Does he seriously think this is news?
You don't need a major "systematic investigation of national mental health surveys" to conclude that, as a gender, we're knackered and slightly round the twist. A visit to Legoland at half-term would suffice.
However, let's not be churlish. When women say they do the lioness's share of the work, and they've had it up to here, they're whingeing. If a man says it, it has to be true, doesn't it? So, thank you, Prof Freeman for telling us what we feel is really hard scientific fact.
As I reach for my daily antidepressant, that trusty sparkplug Fluoxetine, it is consoling to know that I am not alone in struggling to return friends' emails and pack the children's cases for half-term.
Nor am I the only one fantasising about Bruce Willis in a vest exploding a nuclear device next to the Jet Stream so it blows back where it's supposed to be and we can have a sodding summer and stop wearing socks.
Sorry, I digress. Where were we? Ah, yes. Feeling anxious, ratty with the kids, claustrophobic or suddenly overwhelmed with the need to scrub your work surfaces till your hands bleed? Join the club.
Statistics show that one-in-four people will experience a mental health problem in Ireland every year. Far too many men also suffer with mental illness, and they are even less likely to seek help than women.
I'm glad to report that, the last time I wrote about depression, psychiatrists noted something they called the Allison Pearson Effect. Shoals of mums who recognised the symptoms I'd described visited their doctor. Prof Freeman's findings are bound to attract flak, but he insists "the taboo around gender differences in mental health must be broken in order to tackle disorders more successfully. Men and women are very much from the same planet, but they may be breathing air of different qualities."
He puts it very well. Women and men share the same homes and workplaces, but we are not yet equal.
All those years ago, I wrote a book called I Don't Know How She Does It because I didn't know how women managed to combine their mother's and their father's jobs and stay sane. Prof Freeman's study tells us that we're not. The result is an epidemic of depression that, if something isn't done, will have as many adverse consequences as a recession.
So, depressed women, please take heart! Or, at least, take Prozac. We are a genuine sociological and psychological phenomenon.
Failure is not written in our genes or in our stars, it is, as the professor says, down to "causal contributions" in our environment. The fault is not ours: society simply asks too much of us.