Why are so many young Irish women depressed?
Young Irish women have Europe’s highest levels of depression. What lies behind the statistic?
Recent debates around #MeToo and abortion have forced many young women to reckon with past traumas. Photograph: Getty Images
Last week, the EU agency Eurofound published an in-depth report examining young people and their mental health and wellbeing. Specifically, it focused on their ability to access social and healthcare services.
Among the key findings was that 14 per cent of Europeans aged 18-24 were at risk of depression. The report found that those from low-income backgrounds were at greater risk of depression, while young women aged 15-24 were more prone to depression than their male peers. It also noted higher rates of eating disorders and self-harm among young women.
Young Irish women were found to be suffering from the highest levels of depression in Europe. The report stated that 17 per cent of Irish women aged 15-24 are at risk of developing symptoms associated with depression, nearly twice the number of young Irish men who are at risk.
For Dr Cliona Loughnane, women’s health co-ordinator at the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the figures do not come as a surprise.
“It really does reiterate and chime with what young women are already saying to us in the contact we have with them,” she says.
“Young women are telling us all the time that mental health is a big issue for them in their lives.”
So why do young women appear to be more susceptible to depression than their male counterparts? The reasons are manifold and often informed by their experiences of being women, according to Dr Loughnane.
“The type of issues they would bring up when they’re talking to us is the impact of sexism in their lives; the pressure they face to conform; their ideas around a certain body image they have to meet; and the sexual harassment and violence they experience,” she says.
All of this can affect a young woman’s mental health and her ability to participate in society, she explains.
So how does this tally with what mental health professionals are hearing from their young female patients?
Emma Doyle is a psychotherapist based in Cork. She works with MyMind, a social enterprise that offers counselling at an affordable price point. She estimates that 90 per cent of her clients are female and says she has noticed a surge in the number of clients aged in their early 20s.
Women are being constantly bombarded with weight loss, fitness, hair and make-up, and all that sort of thing
She says that there are a number of factors that can negatively impact a young woman’s mental wellbeing. Biologically speaking, hormonal changes that occur during menstruation or pregnancy can severely affect women and their mental health.
“Sometimes you might have a bad day, and that’s normal,” explains Doyle. “But if you’re having a bad day . . . and there’s a surge of all the different hormones, it really magnifies things. Some people might find that small things can seem so much worse and they can spiral.”
She adds that young women are regularly exposed to public discourse around topics that can take an emotional toll on their health and wellbeing. For instance, recent debates around #MeToo and abortion forced many young women to reckon with past traumas.
“So many women came out of the woodwork about things that had happened to them that they had accepted but now realised, actually, that wasn’t okay,” she says.
“Now it’s like, where do they go to talk about it? The media has died down about it but there is an aftermath that I’m experiencing with people questioning things that might have happened to them and coming to terms with the fact that they may have been assaulted.”
The endless scroll can also negatively impact young women and their mental health, says Doyle. Having previously worked in marketing, she says that the female audience is “a lot easier to penetrate in terms of messaging”, meaning that they are more likely to absorb what they see on the likes of Facebook and Instagram.
“Women are being constantly bombarded with weight loss, fitness, hair and make-up, and all that sort of thing,” explains Doyle. “Based on my clinical practice, that is having an impact on women and how they feel about themselves, their body image, and their relationships.
“I think that women are at a disadvantage in terms of being influenced negatively,” she says.
Dr Louise Clarke, a consultant psychologist in Dublin, agrees and says that young women have a tendency to compare themselves to others and chase unattainable ideals.
“There is this pressure to be the perfect woman and increased use of social media is compounding all that,” she says.
Like others in her field, Clarke has noticed an increase in young women accessing her services. However, she says there is still a shame and stigma around depression and notes that young Irish women still have a tendency to bottle things up.
“I have worked abroad and I have noticed that, culturally, young Irish women tend to avoid expressing their emotions,” she says. “They tend to suffer in silence for a long period of time before they reach out, leaving them really vulnerable and high-risk.”
One of the key findings from the Eurofound report was that young people’s risk of depression is strongly linked to socioeconomic status. Cliona Loughnane says this is borne out among young Irish women.
“Increasingly what’s coming to the fore is the impact of austerity on young people,” she says. “That’s an issue that young women would bring to us – the impact of poverty and homelessness.”
We need to see more mental health awareness campaigns that look at women-specific issues
Indeed, there is evidence that women from lower-income backgrounds are at greater risk of depression and suicide than ever before. Last year, it was reported that young women in Tallaght, Clondalkin and Ballyfermot were taking their own lives at the same rate as young men. Many were young mothers and directly affected by poverty, addiction and homelessness.
Last month, Hazel de Nortúin, who represents Ballyfermot/Drimnagh on Dublin City Council, posted a status on Facebook. She wrote of how a young woman had visited her seeking help in finding a home. A week later, the young woman took her own life.
“This is the second time a young woman has come to me looking for support around housing and has taken her life before they ever got the chance of their forever home,” she wrote.
Describing the rate of depression and suicide among young women as “a new phenomenon”, the People Before Profit councillor says that the housing and homelessness crisis has placed additional strain on a demographic already under pressure to “raise a family, have a good job, and look like a Kardashian while you’re at it”.
Many women she encounters are living with young families in emergency accommodation, while others are being forced to remain in the family home when it is unsuitable or even unsafe.
She says that while a precarious living situation may not be the root cause of a young woman’s mental difficulties, it can nonetheless be considered “an aggravating factor”.
Not only are young people from low-income backgrounds at greater risk of depression, but they are also more likely to experience difficulties when it comes to accessing mental health services, according to the Eurofound report.
“If someone is from a middle-class or upper-class background, they have more resources,” says Mairéad Carey, a therapist with Round Tower Psychotherapy in Clondalkin. “They have the opportunity to work with it before it gets really severe. Someone from a working-class background might not have the financial ability to actually go and deal with it.”
Those who choose to seek treatment through the public healthcare system are often greeted with long waiting lists or inadequate services. “The health service is trying to do the best with what they have, but it’s not enough,” says Emma Doyle.
So what can be done to support young women in the meantime?
Cliona Loughnane says it is long past time we had a national conversation around young women and their mental health.
“We need to see more mental health awareness campaigns that look at women-specific issues,” she said. “It’s really important that we have campaigns around suicide and around young men, but we need to do the same for young women, so young women feel and know where they should go and direct themselves.”
This means addressing conditions that tend to affect women more, including eating disorders and depression, and acknowledging the prevalence of self-harm and attempted suicides among young women.
It also means conducting more research into women’s mental health in Ireland. While the National Women’s Council of Ireland published its own report into women’s mental health last year, Loughnane says there is a need for more research into the subject.
That, she says, will arm us with the necessary evidence to develop a mental health service that caters to young women’s needs. That means introducing things such as trauma-informed care, community-based counselling services, and women-only inpatient services.
“It all goes back to listening to women and speaking to young women about their experiences and designing a service in relation to their needs,” she says.
If you have been affected by issues in this report, you can contact these support services.
Samaritans: Dial 116123, text 087-2609090, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pieta House: Dial 1800247247, text ‘HELP’ to 51444, or email email@example.com.
Aware: Dial 1800 80 48 48, or visit yourmentalhealth.ie