3 Issues Affecting Women's Mental Health Today

Are you a woman? Are you an ally to women? Do you have a woman that you care about in your life? Do you suspect that it was a woman who gave birth to you? If you answered yes to any of these questions, please listen to this episode.

Dr. Monica Johnson
5-minute read
Episode #386

This episode is for women—cis women, trans women, BIPOC women, all women—because there is a lot happening in the United States and the world right now that could be negatively impacting folks' mental health. I'm going to talk about a few big things happening and why you should be aware of them.

Let’s start with abortion rights. In the US, several states have been enacting laws to limit access to abortion. Perhaps we have all forgotten what it was like in the before times when abortion was illegal, but let’s run through some facts that we know from research. Approximately one-quarter of women will have had an abortion by the time they are 45-years-old. In the past, when abortion was illegal, women engaged in unsafe abortions, which were colloquially referred to as “back-alley abortions,” or engaged in other harmful self practices in order to lose the child. Can you imagine the “How to Perform Your Own Abortion” TikToks that would blow up our social media? A recent study found that the vast majority of abortions were safe in countries where it was broadly legal and unsafe in countries where laws were highly restrictive. We could assume that the number of unsafe abortions will increase as restrictions increase. When we know that nearly a fourth of women will seek an abortion at some point in their lives, that could be devastating! We also live in a country that has limits on safer sex education in schools and abstinence-only education isn’t really effective, which doesn't help the situation.

You might be thinking—okay, Dr. Johnson, what's that have to do with mental health? Women who are denied abortions are more likely to experience lower self-esteem, lower life satisfaction, and increased anxiety than those that are able to receive one. Additionally, we don’t always take into account the life of the mother and the child once they are in the world. There are continued health and economic consequences which I have seen personally and professionally.

Let me give some color to this story. I am a cis-gendered woman and I was born into poverty in the South. My mother used to say, “we are not poor, we are po—we can’t afford the o and the r” My mother’s greatest fear for me as a child was that I would become pregnant as a teenager. We saw it every day in our environment. However, I had a fascination with reading at an early age, and she made sure the only thing I spread was the pages of a book. She also gave me appropriate sex education and when she dropped me off for my first day of college, she had my older brother slip me a CVS bag full of condoms. My mother was not playing around! She was not an educated woman, but she was clever. She understood all too well the effects unwanted and/or unplanned pregnancies could have on a person.

Research shows that experiencing unwanted pregnancies appears to be strongly associated with poor mental health effects for women later in life. While limiting access to abortion affects all women, the negative impacts are even worse for women of color, sexual and gender minorities, those in rural areas, and low-income women. Moreover, there is a strong relationship between domestic violence and unwanted pregnancy, meaning that the inability to access abortion may leave some women at risk of harm because they may be forced to stay in contact with their abusive partners. A woman’s ability to control when and if she has children is linked to her socioeconomic status and overall earning power. Unwanted pregnancy has also been associated with deficits to the child’s social, cognitive, and emotional processes. There is an increased likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior, having a dependency on public programs, and unstable marriages.

I want to remind everyone that being pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion. It’s about supporting a woman’s agency to make that choice for herself. Many women who are pro-choice may not choose to have an abortion themselves because their circumstances are different. I know women who have had to make that decision and it has never been an easy one. If you are a woman or an ally, I implore you to understand that for these women the hard choice was the right one.

Next up is a topic that I discuss every time I'm teaching anyone about discrimination. It's called the invisibility-hostility paradigm. This is a Dr. J original, so I’ll take a moment to explain it to you.

I’ll start with the invisibility side of things. Let’s talk about the invisibility of Black victims. I’m going to throw out some names. JonBenet Ramsey, Emily Smart, and Natalee Holloway. These are all women who you may be aware of because they have all unfortunately been victims. Their pain and that of their loved ones are very real and valid. But for every JonBenet, there is an Asha or Rasheeyda that we don't hear about. JonBenet Ramsey’s story can still make national television more than 25 years later. The truth is that BIPOC people account for 60% of missing person cases, and while Black women are only 7% of the population, they represent 10% of all the missing person cases in the US. How many of their names do you know? How many of their faces have you seen on your TVs, computers, and smartphones? More than likely: zero. Society at large is not going to talk about their lives even 5 minutes after they’re gone, let alone 25 years later, and their pain and their lives are equally as real and valid. This is the invisibility side of discrimination. The washing out, the minimization, the out of sight and out of mind nature of how we treat those from oppressed backgrounds.

Now, let’s move into an example of the hostility side of the equation. Lia Thomas, the trans female swimmer, is the current target of transphobic comments and threats. I have read that she has been deadnamed and misgendered in the media and that’s not even getting into the threats. Researchers interviewed transgender youths ages 15 to 21 and asked whether they could use their chosen names at school, home, work, and with friends. When compared with peers who could not use their chosen name in any context, those who could use their name in all four areas experienced 7% fewer symptoms of severe depression, a 34% decrease in reported thoughts of suicide, and a 65% decrease in suicidal attempts. Why are we attacking this person’s right to live as their authentic self and damaging their mental health in the process? Is the bare minimum of using their chosen name and pronouns that hard of an ask?

We often have debates about who matters in this country. There are some who would say all lives matter, but does it? When you matter, you have a place in the world and people respect that space. I don't know all the answers, but I do know that the answer is not through shaming and threatening another person. There is no medal in the world, no matter how precious the material it is made from, that is more valuable than another human being.

Like all my episodes, I'll leave you with a tip. When you are faced with something you don't understand, approach it with curiosity. Curiosity allows us to discover questions we've never considered and answers we never thought to seek. Curiosity allows us to collaborate and problem solve. These are key to finding a middle path that supports all of us. Judgment, on the other hand, breeds hostility and polarization, which can only lead to more pain and distance. I want to finish by saying to all women that you matter. I don’t know that the world will reflect that accurately in my lifetime or yours, but we will keep fighting as long as the planet keeps spinning.

Is there a story affecting women that you feel isn’t being talked about enough? Let me know on Instagram @kindmindpsych, you can also reach out to me via my email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com, or leave a voicemail at (929) 256-2191‬.

Citations +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.