By Ashley Tripp
The subject of “women and mental health” is so broad, it can be difficult to narrow down a subject into an article of less than 2,000 words. As I sat down to write this piece, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of it. It is hard to boil down the complexities of these two subjects – individually, much less together. I can only think about how both these topics are so closely connected. And that is the key: womanhood and mental health are intimately associated. Throughout history, these two subjects have also been linked. But as we continue through the 21st century, the connotation around women and mental health is changing. The conversation, which was previously dominated from the outside by patriarchal assumptions, is now being held with intention and purpose by women.
As I sat down to write this, I thought, “It seems that the words ‘women’ and ‘mental health’ often stick together like glue.” After all, throughout history, mental health-or lack thereof- was largely associated with women. Women were thought to be weak, emotional, known for fainting, and unfit for most things of importance. Mental health was boiled down to emotions. Emotions were,and often are still, equated with femininity. Moreover, women’s mental health and illness have been a subject of wicked interest in popular culture for years – from the “hysteria” diagnoses of the Victorian Era to Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy. Tragedies like those are dismissed as relics of the past- things that happened so long ago it would be unthinkable now. Yet, Rosemary Kennedy only died in 2005. This treatment and thought processes toward women are not so far away in time. Considering the amount of young women and teenage girls who currently have PTSD from psychiatric care and institutions, it is still a major problem. Therefore, while the stigma around mental health has changed some, it hasn’t entirely.
Therefore, it is actually essential that a severe dedication to mental health is considered a part of being a woman. After the domestic and sexist abuse endured by our ancestors- as well as the rampant misogyny today- maintaining sanity as a woman requires an active effort. After one adds in the traditional social ideas about femininity and mental health that I discussed above, it is unsurprising that there has been – and continues to be- a strong connection between women and mental health. So, it is expected that the correlation between the two is a common subject of conversation, both positively and negatively.
Unfortunately, conversation about mental health still retains some of the stigma of its past. Those who speak about it, primarily women, are often dismissed as too emotional with unrealistic expectations. Childhood traumas are mocked and minimized with terms like daddy issues and fatherless behaviour – terms specifically aimed towards women. As a society, many crack insults regarding female mental health (or lack thereof) as just a part of being a woman. Comments like, “Is it that time of the month?” float around freely in 2022. The mental health of women has become the punchline to many jokes. But the relationship between the two is uncontested. Even negatively, there is a common agreeance that the two subjects are linked. Essentially, mental health or illness has always been a defining part of being a woman in society. However, it has become increasingly more openly discussed and linked. It is nearly impossible for the two to be separated.
Yet, for the first time, women are discussing our mental health and illnesses in ways that our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers couldn’t. We are reclaiming the connection as a positive thing, rather than the negative associations of the past. We are owning our mental health efforts and mental illness struggles. Women are taking an active role in discussing and dealing with mental health, both individually and as a gender.
The ushering in of the 21st century, and all of the technology that comes with it, has played a pivotal part. For instance, we have access to Google, which means the ability to find information about nearly everything. This has let many women self-advocate and do their own research, taking an active role in their mental health.
Social media has played a pivotal part in this. One of the unexpected benefits of this global interconnectedness is the ability for people (yet primarily women) to share their trauma, emotions, experiences, and feelings with millions of strangers. We are using social media platforms to discuss mental health, and its struggles, with other women. Social media has allowed many more women than ever before to be a part of the conversation around mental health. Because of this, therapy has become (at least somewhat) more normalized and accessible. Women are also learning about psychological disorders, trauma, and the inner workings of mental health thanks to technology and social media. We are learning (and using) words like gaslight and red flags in common conversation, challenging the abuse our ancestors endured. We are openly discussing our traumas, working on our mental health, and shredding the images of “she has it all” and “I don’t know how she does it.” Rather than social isolation and quiet shame, nowadays, struggles are often met with understanding and even relief from other women who endure the same thing.
In my own experience, I have seen many women use social media, primarily Instagram and Tiktok, to come forward and share how another woman’s mental health “testimony” guided them on their own journey. Whether it is a shared diagnoses, certain symptoms, or even types of medications, women are discussing their mental health with each other. It is a truly profound and unexpected side effect of this mass connection. Women have often found solace in the stories of strangers when they are rejected by the arms of their own families regarding mental health and illness. The problem isn’t fixed, but women are creating outlets to deal with it.
Despite this community and camaraderie, there is an ever-present sense that mental health, and its struggles, are delicately intertwined with womanhood. Women have reclaimed the idea that we feel things more deeply, rather than turning away in shame. Trends full of Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Plath quotes set to the tunes of Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift overwhelm social media. Women are not only acknowledging our mental health, we are owning it, proudly. Women have taken a topic that was used as a weapon against us, something to prod at our weaknesses, and remade it into an authentic strength. The strength of being a woman.
How does all of this connect to mental health? Well, embracing a sisterhood of mutual feelings, struggles, experiences, and emotions can have a deep and profound effect on one’s mental health. It is in accepting that women are dynamic and unpredictable and deeply-feeling that one can begin to make peace with their own mental health. A woman can readjust the lighting and see herself in a whole new way – mental health or illness included.
Women have reclaimed this association with mental health with power. Rather than minimizing ourselves to fit the “norm,” which has been decided by a patriarchal society, we are reinventing it. We don’t have to try to separate ourselves from these traditional labels anymore. We are able to do what our mothers and grandmothers fought for – express ourselves freely, mental health included. We are able to pair womanhood with honesty and authenticity through mental health.
In conclusion, women in the 21st century are reclaiming the link between womanhood and mental health. Rather than resist this historical association, women are reinventing what the link means. We are using modern technology social media to form bonds and gain information about mental health. These two things are allowing us to do something that our female ancestors only hoped for: giving women the power to have an active role in the conversation about our mental health. This conversation has not only reaffirmed the link between womanhood and mental health, but it has changed the connotation around it. Now, women are taking pride in our awareness about our mental health.
Ashley Tripp is a writer and artist from the U.S. with a degree in English and history.
She is passionate about women’s issues, mental health included. Ashley currently runs a blog dedicated to authentically discussing mental and physical illness. In her free time, Ashley creates digital art, shared through her account @ashleytripp.art.
She lives in Kentucky with her mom, brother, cat, and her dog, Lily, which is her best friend.