Men ARE from Mars: Gender differences in mental health

Human Heads with Colorful Gears Vector Illustration, from Mental Health America
Human Heads with Colorful Gears Vector Illustration, from Mental Health America

On Tuesday 20th November, University of York Events hosted Dr Paul Blenkiron, Consultant Psychiatrist, member of NHS Foundation Trust and Honorary Reader at Hull York Medical School, to speak on the biological differences between men and women regarding mental health. Blenkiron attests that there is good scientific proof for these differences, and through his lecture, he applies the affects of these differences to the interaction between the sexes, the care we afford to those with mental health problems and the general functioning of men and women’s lives.

Despite Blenkiron opening statement that he would discuss “men” and “men’s health,” the content of the talk was equally weighted towards both genders, as he noted that one “cannot discuss” these topics without respect to women and women’s health. The talk was loosely structured on the chronology of the human life, starting with the primary differences between males and females in the womb and ending on the manifestations of mental illness in men and women into adult life. Having authored a chapter on ‘Depression and other mood disorders’ in the book The Female Mind, published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists last year, it is no surprise that Blenkiron takes the time to focus more on mental health in men and women than the biological differences between the sexes.

Starting with the development in the womb, however much many would like to believe that gendered behaviour is inspired by nurture rather than nature and one’s environment, Blenkiron clearly states that the “sexes are unequal from the start.” This is particularly interesting given the increased medical and psychological attention on transsexual and non-binary identity, as Blenkiron confirms that, even if a child identifies as non-binary or trans or has been raised as not adhering to gender-norms, that child will still express behaviour as typically found in a person of their biological sex. Paying respect to the contemporary prevalence of gender awareness, Blenkiron discusses the science of gender disphoria. He says that issues in gender identity are more fashioned by hormones and biology than by society, which goes some way in explaining the phrase being ‘born into the wrong body.’ Whilst I applaud Blenkiron’s mention of gender disphoria in his discussion of gender as a whole, I feel as though his personal approach to the topic is somewhat out-dated, evident through his using masculine pronouns when discussing the trans-women displayed in the presentation. Back to biology, we learned of that the sexually dimorphic nucleus determines anti-natal gendered behaviour in children as young as seven weeks old in boys and ten weeks old in girls. Evidence suggests that the sexually dimorphic nucleus controls the distribution of hormones in an individual, for example a female foetus with high levels of testosterone with have more masculine traits as she develops; seems simple.

The interactive element of the talk began in the ‘Test Your Personality’ section. 20 personality traits were displayed for members of the audience to decide with which ones they most identified. Two examples of the listed traits are: ‘I like to win’ and ‘I am a good listener.’ Here he introduced the concept of the male brain and the female brain, the part of the psyche which harbours male or female behavioural traits; which he made clear do not denote masculinity or femininity, merely the biological tendencies of the sexes. Ten of the traits were associated with the male brain and the other ten were associated with the female brain, so in testing our self-identified traits, we were able to calculate an approximation of the sex of our brains. As one might expect, ‘I am a good listener’ is characteristic of the female brain, whereas ‘I like to win’ characteristic of the male brain. Blenkiron is careful to mention that these generalisations are often unfounded in the study of individuals, with which statement he led us onto another interactive element of the talk. Presented with a two-by-two grid the audience were tasked with choosing celebrities who did and did not seem to adhere to typical gender traits. I understand this from an entertainment point of view, using well-known figures to engage the audience, but it felt a bit out-of-touch with the status of the talk as an open lecture addressing an educated audience. Blenkiron quotes a study conducted by the University of Cambridge whereby 700,000 people were asked to fill out an online survey on personality traits. Although online surveys may not encourage the most authentic data, the results do provide a basis for the traits found in men and in women on average. Women are found to be more empathetic, whereas men are more systematising: men find it easier to analyse quantitatively. Blenkiron introduced autism as a condition that is “an extreme version of the male brain,” shown in the common autistic proclivity towards order. 

Having spent 30 minutes on generalised commentary of men and women’s biological differences, Blenkiron moves onto the crux of his speech: men, women and mental illness. His final interactive activity saw the audience designating mental illnesses to men and women according to our own understanding of gender and mental illnesses. For me, this was the most interesting activity in the lecture as it contradicted everything I knew about gender and mental illness. Interestingly, bipolar, Schizophrenia and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are equally as likely to appear in men and in women. Higher suicide and drug-related illness rates for men are harrowing but generally well documented, as are the higher numbers of eating disorders amongst women. For me, the most surprising statistic was the twofold likelihood of women being diagnosed with depression than men. Women are also more likely to self-harm than men, but not commit ‘completed suicide.’ It seemed strange to me that there was not a gender correlation between those who self-harm and those who commit completed suicide, does not one often lead to the other and if so would there not be higher suicide rates amongst women? The short answer is no. The long answer is that there are clinical differences in the ways in which the genders cope with depression and suicidal feelings. Men are more likely to repress their feelings, instead seeking solace in distractions, such as sex and TV, physical aggression, such as crime, and blaming others. They rarely dwell on their depression, therefore they are less likely to self-harm over a long period of time. Unfortunately, when men do ruminate on their mental illnesses it often has tragic outcomes, at a ratio of 2 men to every one women committing completed suicide. Women on the other hand are more likely to suffer from depression as more women suffer from childhood traumas, sexual abuse and domestic violence as well as being more susceptible to worries over body-image. Depression in women is also triggered by hormonal imbalance during the menstrual cycle and childbirth. Despite the seemingly even split between nature and nurture in depression in women, Blenkiron maintains that it is most likely caused by ‘life events’ and the difference in men and women’s ‘thinking styles.’ In juxtaposition to the male approach, women are more likely to ruminate; an approach that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (COT) aims to discourage as a form of coping with depression, instead aiming to stimulate positive action. Because women dwell on their feelings, they are more likely to recognise their own illness and seek help from friends, family and professionals. Both genders suffer from anxiety around body-image. Anorexia is most prominent in women, whilst more men have suffer from a form of muscle dysmorphia known as ‘Bigorexia,’ with sufferers from both genders seeing themselves as fat. This is more prevalent now than ever before, with the in Instagram and other social media outlets on which users share their lives and personal photographs.

The closing section of the lecture focused on relationships between men and women. Blenkiron begs the question ‘why is marriage better for men than it is for women’ after quoting the statistic that men are more likely to be dissatisfied if they are unmarried, and that women are more likely to be dissatisfied if they are married. Blenkiron interprets this as possibly being caused by the development of mental health issues in women post-marriage, or that married women often put the needs of their children above their own. Even in this modern world, a matriarchal household is considered unfavourable, with both members of the marriage feeling dissatisfied when the women exercises control. Power-politics in relationships is often put down to the differences in communication between men and women, revealing that women reveal personal information to their friends, whilst men discuss personal activities. Communication between the sexes extends to body language as women are better sending and receiving non-verbal messages than men. Despite these differences in communication, both men and women are reported to be equally as manipulative in confrontation; an epithet I find often awarded solely to women.

From the outset, our speaker promised a night of “entertainment, education and interaction” and he was not wrong. The entertainment began with jests at himself and his work within the psychiatric field, a successful attempt to seem immediately personable and thus set the audience at ease. The majority of the entertainment in the talk was expressed through comical stereotypes of men and women. The education aspect of the show was consistent throughout, with Blenkiron presenting studies and findings when appropriate and introducing new scientific and psychiatric research as food-for-thought. The interactive element certainly lived up to expectation, with several diverse interactive activities spread systematically throughout the lecture, I suppose to maintain the audience’s attention.

As entertaining and engaging as the quips at gender stereotypes were, I felt it slightly misplaced for an academic audience. Spectators ranged from Sixth-form students with their parents to lecturers; all of whom are interested in the topic and likely had some understanding of the biological differences between men and women; only to be offered to gape at pictures of Daniel Craig in speedos. He relied quite heavily on gender-tropes; something I sensed did not suit everyone’s sensibilities as he inspired at least one member of the audience to call for the scientific evidence of his “general” comments on men and women in society.

That being said, in a way I like that the informality of the event allowed for a casual discussion of things which should be part of daily conversation, such as depression, high suicide rates for young men, and affect of childhood traumas, but that society and our supposed national stoicism considers too taboo to discuss openly. Furthermore, I imagine that a lot of the interactive and entertaining elements of the lecture were more about keeping the audience engaged than about mocking genders or discrediting the severity of mental illness. Despite criticism of some content and contexts featured in the lecture, I found the lecture stimulating and educational, as, I believe, did most of the audience.

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Eleanor Jefferys

Eleanor Jefferys

Eleanor Jefferys

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