SEATTLE, Washington — The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unique and unprecedented challenges for women and girls. It has exposed the inherent gender inequalities of nearly every system in every part of the world, including social services, health, nutrition, education and finances. Policy initiatives are imperative to curtailing these trends and easing mental health concerns for women and girls during the pandemic and beyond. Women’s mental health during COVID-19 necessitates prioritization.
Globally, one of the most striking disparities existing is in mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic surged mental health concerns and has disproportionately impacted women and girls. Policy decisions and health initiatives often overlook women’s health, and particularly, mental health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and U.N. agencies, low and middle-income countries spend less than 1.6% of health budgets on mental health. These dynamics are reversing progress made toward closing gender gaps.
Repercussions for Women
Across an array of contexts, women are telling a congruent tale about facing mental health challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Globally, women are reporting greater levels of increased anxiety and depression than men. CARE’s Rapid Gender Analysis examined the impact of the pandemic on men’s and women’s lives in 38 countries. It found that the number of women who reported mental health impacts from COVID-19 was threefold that of men. More than a quarter of women reported increased stress, anxiety and other mental health struggles.
In many countries, the onus is placed on women to maintain many aspects of life, like taking care of the daily household responsibilities, the well-being of children and providing food. These additional responsibilities, coupled with the stressors of the pandemic, engender significant levels of stress for women. This rings true for women in Lebanon, where “women reported spending 83% of their time on housework” and tending to others while men only spent around 14%.
Concurrently, United for Global Mental Health found women had consistently higher rates of mental distress during the COVID-19 outbreak. Chinese women reported symptoms of depression and anxiety more commonly than men. Similarly, among the Indian population, “66% of women reported being stressed,” in contrast to only 34% of men.
Gender-Based Violence During COVID-19
Gender-based violence has also escalated during the pandemic, placing additional strains on women’s mental health. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that an additional 31 million women and girls would experience domestic violence during the six month quarantine period. Furthermore, UNFPA projects an additional 15 million cases for every three months that the stay-at-home orders continue.
This blaze of gender-based violence has exasperated victims’ mental health, causing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety to become more prevalent across nations. For example, in Bhutan, crisis centers and shelters have received dozens of cases of violence against women and girls since the start of quarantine.
The Need for a Global Response
StrongMinds is an NGO working to improve the mental health of women throughout Africa. Through its free peer-to-peer and cellular teletherapy programs in Uganda and Zambia, Strongminds has treated 80,000 girls and women for depression. The women that have been involved through this program have shown a 16% increased attendance at work. At least 28% of women reported feeling more socially connected. The program has also impacted the women’s families. Children of women in the program increased school attendance by 30%.
There are also online platforms available to support these women. They range from animated video series to an automated chat service through WhatsApp called Amani. It provides women easy access to “information, advice and understanding” to work through their depressive feelings.
Awareness and Support
Increasing awareness and open dialogue surrounding mental health struggles are simple solutions that help women tremendously to cope with depression and rejuvenate hope for themselves and their families. Improving women’s mental health is a key factor in fostering gender equality and empowering women around the globe.
Governments must prioritize a collaborative, global effort to address women’s mental health during COVID-19 to truncate the growing mental health disparities. Improving access to domestic violence resources and support, increasing investments in mental health services and expanding other psychosocial services are key in alleviating the gender inequalities in mental health. Promoting women’s psychological well-being expands their ability to focus on other opportunities and enhance the quality of their lives.
– Samantha Johnson