Levels of stress, anxiety, worry, sadness and anger among women worldwide are at a 10-year high, according to a new report.
In one of the largest studies on women’s well-being, analytics firm Gallup and medical tech company Hologic, Inc. teamed up to survey over 66,000 women in 122 countries around the world.
Study authors found 43% of respondents said they experienced worry in 2021, 41% reported feeling stress, 32% reported feeling sadness, and 26% reported feeling anger, according to the Hologic Global Women’s Health Index.
Compared to 2020, worry, stress and anger among women rose by 3%, while sadness rose by 6%, which are all record highs since the Gallup World Poll began tracking emotional health a decade ago.
“The lack of progress and, in some cases, backward momentum justify an even louder wake-up call for world leaders to do more for women, whose well-being underpins the health of families, communities, societies and economies,” said Hologic president and CEO Steve MacMillan.
Study authors also found the gender gap in emotional health between men and women had widened within the past year, as 39% of men report feeling worry, 39% stress, 26% sadness, and 21% anger.
Mental health experts say the report shows how women have disproportionately shouldered the emotional burden of the pandemic as many families faced job insecurity, unstable housing, and interruptions to medical and childcare services.
“A lot of that has to do with traditional roles in terms of caregiving and responsibility for making sure that children are fed and tending to illnesses – even in high-resourced countries,” said Dr. Elizabeth Fitelson, director of the women’s program in Columbia University’s psychiatry department. “Many of these burdens still disproportionately fall on women in addition to needing to work and having multiple roles.”
The pandemic saw both men and women leaving their jobs in droves, but studies show men were quicker to return to the workforce.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show women are still down by a net 100,000 jobs since February 2020 while men hold 132,000 more jobs as of July 2022, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates for women’s rights.
A 2021 survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation also found many women quit their jobs or took unpaid sick leave citing school or daycare closures.
Health experts say women are also disproportionately affected by rising rates of domestic violence, as the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found cases have increased 25% to 33% globally.
“All of these things compound,” said Dr. Sofia Noori, co-founder of the Women’s Mental Health Conference and a clinical instructor at Yale University’s department of psychiatry. “If you’re constantly exposed to stressful situations… your nervous system doesn’t have a chance to rev down so you’re constantly in a state of fight or flight.”
Health experts say experiencing intense stress for a long period of time without having access to resources to deal with those stressors could lead to toxic or chronic stress.
Studies show chronic stress has been linked to other psychological and physical conditions like hypertension, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and anxiety, according to Yale Medicine.
The best way to support women’s mental health is to support social safety nets and implement policies that improve access to health care systems, family leave, food security, and housing, Fitelson said.
“Focusing on improving the social supports for basic needs would have a far greater intervention than any specific mental health intervention,” she said. But mental health treatment is still necessary to manage the aftermath of crises, toxic stress, and trauma.
While experts say women’s mental health is often unrecognized and understudied, they hope the Gallup-Hologic report creates more awareness.
“Women are the cornerstones of family, societies, and economy,” said Dr. Susan Harvey, vice president of worldwide medical affairs at Hologic. “We need to pay attention to this and what it signals.”
Hector O. Chapa, MD, FACOGPeer