By Sona Dimidjian and Richard Davidson
Sona Dimidjian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research addresses the treatment and prevention of depression, with a particular focus on the mental health of women during pregnancy and postpartum.
Richard J. Davidson is a leading expert on the study of emotions and how they affect well-being. He is the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.
If you were told that nearly half of the people on the planet had a higher risk of developing a mental health disorder, what would you do?
Would you help bring the issue to light? Or support better preventive care and education to help?
Surprisingly, this isn't a fictitious statistic, but a reality we face. Compared to men, women are more likely to experience many of the most common mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and eating disorders.
These conditions have tremendous impact on well-being. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. And while it's the leading cause among men and women, women and girls are twice as likely to experience it. Although there are multiple social determinants of mental health and well-being, gender is a powerful one.
Understanding why and how this plays out in our homes and communities, and what can be done about it is an important way to begin addressing the problem. There's still stigma surrounding mental health disorders in most places, including the United States, that discourages people from seeking treatment when they need it.
As researchers, we're dedicated to sharing the results of our work with the hope of empowering people to recognize and take action in their various communities, whether it's at home, next door, or around the world.
Researchers in our labs at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are looking at how early-life experiences play a role in whether an individual develops a mental health disorder later in life. For instance, studies are showing that despite both girls and boys being exposed to stressful events early in life - like poverty, abuse, or loss of a family member to death or maternal depression - female adolescents are more likely than their male counterparts to exhibit alterations in brain function that predispose them to experience a mental health disorder in early adulthood.
We don't yet have a full picture why this happens, but it's clear that there are vulnerabilities for girls that become evident around puberty, whereas male adolescents buffer the impact of stress in different ways. Moreover, ongoing stressors disproportionately influence women throughout adulthood, and it's clear that this context makes a difference for women's mental health.
We're also learning how much is at stake if we do nothing or ignore the importance of women's well-being.
The more often women experience a mental health episode, the more likely such problems are to recur or persist in women's lives. For example, having experienced depression in the past is the most consistent predictor of whether women experience depression during major adult lifecycle transitions, such as during pregnancy or menopause.
Also, when women suffer in these ways, others in their lives are vulnerable. We are exploring how women's well-being during pregnancy influences their children's psychological well-being once they are born, investigating whether and how the mom's psychological state during pregnancy impacts the infant's brain development and gene expression. The far-ranging impact of maternal depression during pregnancy underscores the critical importance of treating mental health disorders during and following pregnancy to set the best possible trajectory for the child.
So what can we do?
The good news is that we're beginning to understand well-being and how we can learn it. Some of the research we've conducted over the years points to four components of well-being that can be measured in the brain and also can be changed with intentional training, including: resilience, attention, positive outlook, and generosity.
We've found that simple secular meditation practices can influence these components in a way that promotes well-being. In one of our recent studies, we found that learning these skills can help protect at-risk women from experiencing depression during pregnancy and after giving birth. Only 18 percent of at-risk pregnant women who learned mindfulness and other well-being skills experienced depression, as compared to 50 percent of women who received usual care (most commonly psychotherapy or antidepressant medication).
We also are learning that these skills can be taught online. In other recent studies using the web-based program Mindful Mood Balance, we found that the ability to learn skills in their own homes, on their own time, is a major benefit for many women who are juggling family and work responsibilities. Sometimes, adding "self-care" can be just another item on the "to-do" list - so it is critical to deliver training in ways that women can access.
For women, cultivating the skill of well-being is an essential investment in their own futures, and potentially those of their children. If we can teach these skills to women during lifecycle transitions like pregnancy or to girls before the onset of adolescence, then maybe we can minimize the risk of mental health problems for both sexes throughout life.
It's these kinds of preventive approaches that will pave our way forward. And it starts with you as an advocate to transform our healthcare systems, schools, workplaces, and mass media to promote well-being for women and, correspondingly, for all.
We'll be discussing these topics and more during a live webcast with experts across science, media and healthcare on Thursday April 14 at 7:15 CST. The event is free and hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.