National Women's Health Policy

Mental health across the lifespan

Page last updated: 07 February 2011

Women’s mental health needs also differ at different times of their lives. Young women between the ages of 15 and 22 years are much more likely to have negative body image, or body image dissatisfaction. This has been linked to a range of physical and psychological health concerns and risk-taking behaviours, including the development of eating disorders (which are 10 times more common among women than men 183), low self-esteem, depression, self-harm and suicide.184

Pregnancy and the postnatal period is a time of vulnerability to poor mental health. Anxiety and depressive symptoms are common during and following pregnancy, with the highest rates in the second and third trimester.185 The postnatal period is a time of risk for onset of new psychotic illness, postnatal depression and relapse in women with established depressive disorders.186 187 High quality care for women is needed before, during and after birth, particularly for those with existing mental illness.

Good maternal mental health in the perinatal period impacts positively on the cognitive, emotional and behavioural consequences of children. However, it has been estimated that up to 15 per cent of women experience depression in the perinatal period. This has a profound effect on their own health and wellbeing, and on their children and families.188 Risk factors for a depressive disorder are predominately psychosocial and may include absence of social support, marital conflict, experiences of childhood abuse or a history of anxiety and depression.189 190 Women’s mental health needs to be considered in the context of women’s extra burdens due to inequalities in income, status in the workplace, caring responsibilities, experiences of harassment, violence and discrimination.

Women in mid-life have higher prevalence of mental illness than other age groups.191 Major life changes such as divorce, involuntary unemployment, retirement, becoming grandparents, illness or disability, caring or bereavement may contribute to these higher rates.

Women’s role as the majority of primary carers can also have a significant impact on their mental health. Women’s major role in caring for both children and older parents can have negative impacts on their own mental health. Women often act as carers for others experiencing mental illness, and as such the increased burden of care of relatives post de-institutionalisation has a much greater impact on women.

Older women face a range of issues relating to their mental health including potential social isolation and its impacts.