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Women’s Mental Health: We are Not Androgynous

Originally published September 19, 2011.

Postpartum Support International’s 2011 Conference

Great to see Dr. Jeanne Driscoll!

There were so many great speakers talking about the complexities of caring for women in the perinatal period. Dr. Jeanne Driscoll, a practicing psychologist and nurse-practitioner, is co-author with Deborah Sichel, MD of Women’s Moods: What every woman must know about hormones, the brain, and emotional health was one of the keynote speakers. Dr. Driscoll presented her own qualitative study about women living with bipolar II disorder. She said she conducted the study because of the paucity of research specifically about women with bipolar II disorder.

As an aside: A qualitative study is a focused, in depth study of a small group of participants intimately investigating their personal, nuanced emotional and psychological experiences. I love qualitative research! It is a great complement to quantitative research. For example, quantitative research shows us that, once puberty hits, depression is twice as common in women than men. Qualitative research gives us insight into personal experiences so we can discover why this statistic might be so.

Dr. Driscoll presented some of the following themes regarding women’s mental health (maternal mental health) which emerged in her latest research:

  • The women in the study generally validated the following statements:

    • If a woman doesn’t feel as if she being heard, she silences herself.

    • Women are relational

      • Women tend to put the other as more powerful than herself.

      • Women tend to change what she has power over: herself – in order to stay in relationship.

  • The women in the study needed to recover from an average of eight years of misdiagnosis.

  • The women in the study had to rebuild their self-esteem after having an improperly diagnosed and basically untreated, mental illness for many many years.

  • Acknowledging and accepting the bipolar II diagnosis is a process

  • The diagnosis was the beginning of a long period of healing and self-acceptance

  • The women in the study went through the antidepressant shuffle in those eight years without being relieved of their symptoms.

  • Women’s moods varied with their physiology, and their moods are affected by their hormonal cycle.

  • The drugs that seemed to work best in controlling bipolar II symptoms are lithium and Lamictal (lamotrigine)

  • Different types of birth control pills can be triggers to mood state changes

  • Menopause can be a trigger to the onset of a mood disorder

  • Early symptoms of bipolar II disorder are passive thoughts of suicide, and the appearance of sleep disorders

  • Although there are these obvious physical differences and triggers to mood disorders in women, major gender-specific studies are not initiated.

  • Male & female mood disorders are commonly treated the same.

Seeing Dr. Driscoll speak had special personal meaning to me. Over ten years ago, I read Women’s Moods when I was a mental health counselor in community health.

I ran lots of groups for persons with severe and persistent mental illness.

One was a Women’s Issues group. (I am going to speak about them in a composite manner, so as not to reveal any specific information about an individual.) I remember how beautiful the women were. Sadly, there were many women with severe mental health issues. There was much dialog about how their menstrual cycle and pregnancies affected them.

I read those women Women’s Moods. Drs. Sichel and Driscoll demonstrated how the fluctuating hormonal concentrations in a woman’s blood stream at different times of the month change the required level of medication needed to control symptoms. They were intelligent women, and got this concept right away! It was exciting to validate their internal experiences in that way!

They and I were powerless to change the system, but it was liberating to read it and for them to hear it.

Now, there are many women’s groups banding together and we are getting our voices heard.

But the system has not changed since then.

Are we not important enough to study?

If not now, when?

And of course this blog post is not intended as a substitute for healthcare by your own practitioner. Consult with your doctor for more information about diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues.


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