Everyday experiences of sexism don’t just grate on your nerves, a new study says. Enduring sexist discrimination and microaggressions in both private and public places increase the likelihood that you’ll struggle with clinical depression, exhaustion, and other mental health declines. Because, according to this study, women who report experiencing sexist discrimination are three times more likely to be depressed than women who don’t.
The study, published in the journal Health Psychology, included data from nearly 3,000 women over age 16 from The UK Household Longitudinal Study, who were asked about their mental health and experiences with sexist discrimination over two separate years (2009-2010 and 2013-2014). One out of five of the participants reported experiencing sexist discrimination over the past 12 months. These women were not only more likely to be more depressed, but also were 26% more likely than other participants to report other incidents of psychological distress. Women who experienced explicit sexist discrimination also had lower levels of self-rated health and life satisfaction.
Women experienced these mental health declines in association with feeling unsafe and avoiding certain places because of their gender. The study also found that insults, name calling, and being physically attacked had a significant negative impact on participants’ mental health, including driving women to avoid exercise to avoid hostile gym spaces or using substances to cope with oppressive experiences.
Participants experiencing sexism in public places was particularly common. According to the study, 77% of reported sexist discrimination happened in the street, 40% on public transportation, and 39% in train or bus stations. The public nature of this reported sexism, the study suggested, might be one of the reasons that these experiences were linked so intimately with feelings of safety.
But because the experiences of sexism were all self-reported, it’s important to note that the women who were most likely to report gender-based discrimination were younger and tended to be white and middle class. And according to a 2015 study published in the journal The Gerontologist, the racist pressures placed on Black women to uphold a Strong Black Woman archetype, especially as they age, can contribute to lower reporting of dually sexist and racist experiences. Asian American women, too, are subjected to racist expectations to act submissive in the face of gendered racism and media invalidation of those struggles, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology.
Despite varying levels of self-reporting sexist experiences, however, both sexism and racism are reliable predictors of women’s mental health, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Sex Research. And according to a 2015 study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, gender-based discrimination and trauma also harms the mental health of trans people of all genders.
And the Health Psychology study found that the more often people endured sexist treatment, the harder it was to rebound from the experiences. This aligns with the findings of a 2018 study published in the Journal of Mental Health, which found that women’s long-term mental health is largely related to cumulative trauma from gender-based discrimination. But people of all genders are impacted by misogyny, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Nursing Inquiry. Mental health professionals, the study concluded, often interpret men’s symptoms of depression, such as substance use to cope, as simply ‘men being men’, therefore not offering them the treatment that they need.
Significantly, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services found that health care models that affirm the gendered experiences of transgender and non-binary teens greatly increases their mental health. The study concluded that providing care that affirms, rather than denies or minimizes, people’s gendered experiences is key in improving people’s mental health. The study found that seeking treatment that will affirm your experiences with sexism as real and significant will be good for your mental health. And everyone definitely deserves that.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.