Hesperian Health Guides

Common Mental Health Problems for Women

Although there are many kinds of mental health problems,the most common ones are anxiety, depression, and misuse of alcohol or drugs. In most communities, women suffer from anxiety and depression more than men do. But men are more likely than women to have a problem misusing alcohol or drugs.

To decide whether someone has a mental health problem, keep the following things in mind:

  • There is no clear line between normal responses to life’s events and mental health problems.
  • Most people have some of the signs listed below at different times in their lives, because everyone faces problems at one time or another.
  • Signs of mental health problems can vary from community to community. Behavior that looks strange to an outsider may be a normal part of a community’s traditions or values.

Depression (extreme sadness or feeling nothing at all)

Some people call depression ‘heaviness of heart’ or ‘loss of spirit or soul’.

It is natural for a person to feel depressed when she experiences a loss or death. But she may have a mental health problem if the signs below last for a long time.

a sad-looking older woman holding a handkerchief
  • feeling sad most of the time
  • difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • difficulty thinking clearly
  • loss of interest in pleasurable activities, eating, or sex
  • physical problems, such as headaches or intestinal problems, that are not caused by illness
  • slow speech and movement
  • lack of energy for daily activities
  • thinking about death or suicide

Anxiety (feeling nervous or worried)

Other common names for anxiety are ‘nerves’, ‘nervous attacks’, and ‘heart distress’.

When a woman has severe chest pain or difficulty breathing, she should get medical help. These may be a sign of serious physical illness.

Everyone feels nervous or worried from time to time. When these feelings are caused by a specific situation, they usually go away soon afterwards. But if the anxiety continues or becomes more severe, or if it comes without any reason, then it may be a mental health problem.

a woman shaking and sweating
  • feeling tense and nervous without reason
  • shaking hands
  • sweating
  • feeling the heart pound (when there is no heart disease)
  • difficulty thinking clearly
  • frequent physical complaints that are not caused by physical illness and that increase when a woman is upset

Panic attacks are a severe kind of anxiety. They happen suddenly and can last from several minutes to several hours. In addition to the signs above, a person feels terror or dread, and fears that she may lose consciousness (faint) or die. She may also have chest pain, difficulty breathing, and feel that something terrible is about to happen.

Reactions to trauma

After a person has experienced trauma, she may have many different reactions, such as:

  • Going over the trauma again and again in her mind. While she is awake, she may keep remembering the terrible things that happened. At night she may dream about them or be unable to fall asleep because she is thinking about them.

a woman lying in bed thinking about being attacked by soldiers

People suffering from reactions to trauma may also feel anxious or depressed, or misuse alcohol or drugs.

  • Feeling numb or feeling emotions less strongly than before. She may avoid people or places that remind her of the trauma.
  • Becoming very watchful. If she is constantly looking out for danger, she may have difficulty relaxing and sleeping. She may overreact when startled.
    an anxious-looking woman
  • Feeling very angry or full of shame about what happened. If a person has survived a trauma where others died or were seriously injured, she may feel guilty that others suffered more than she did.
  • Feeling separate and distant from other people.
  • Having outbursts of strange or violent behavior, in which she is confused about where she is.

Many of these signs are normal responses to a difficult situation. For example, it is normal to feel angry that a trauma has happened, or to be watchful if the situation is still dangerous. But if the signs are so severe that a person cannot carry out daily activities, or if the signs start months after the trauma has happened, the person may have a mental health problem.

This page was updated:13 Jun 2019