[Note: I know in my last post I said that I was going to write about my time in the psychiatric ward, but then I read an article and my reaction was so strong that I had to write a rebuttal. So, I promise to continue my Dispatches from the Psych Ward series next week.]
Last week, The New York Times published an op-ed by psychiatrist Julie Holland called “Medicating Women’s Feelings.” I read it because I was hoping it was going to be a critique of how society has historically used psychiatry and pharmaceuticals to control women’s bodies and behaviours. Unfortunately, it ended up being a bad lesson in biological determinism, stereotypes, and oversimplification.
There are sweeping generalizations and stereotypes made throughout Holland’s op-ed. But my favourite one comes in her first sentence: “Women are moody.” There are roughly 3 billion women in the world and, according to Holland, we are all moody. In an article for The Frisky, Katrin Higher, argues that:
What she [Holland] fails to mention is that our particular biological expressions of fears and desires…are not any more moody than men’s particular manifestations of moodiness. Just because we may cry after something troubling, doesn’t mean a man won’t punch a wall (and maybe a woman will punch a wall, actually that sounds fun and I may try it) for a similar feeling.
Katrin is right. Some women may cry after something bad happens, but that doesn’t mean a man won’t react in some other way. Or, heaven forbid, they might actually cry! My point is, not all women are moody. It’s just ridiculous to think that all 3 billion of us react in the same way to situations. Some women are moody, but I also know a hell of a lot of men who are a lot more fucking moody than I am (and I have a disease that makes me pretty fucking moody).
Another issue with Holland’s op-ed is the overarching message that suggests that women’s “emotionality” is a source of untapped power and by medicating ourselves, we are losing this power. As someone who is both a woman and takes medication for a mental illness, does this make me less of a woman? Moreover, what about the trans community? Are trans women less of a woman because they don’t have the biology to make them emotional? Of course not! These sweeping generalizations about gender and emotions serve no one.
Moving beyond the oversimplification of women’s moodiness Holland argues that the pharmaceutical industry is “targeting women in a barrage of advertising on daytime talk shows and in magazines.” And she isn’t wrong. Since the advent of Valium being marketed as “Mother’s Little Helper,” psychotropic medications have been disproportionately marketed towards women. In a 2003 study Jonathan M. Metzl provided a visual history of how “psychotropic treatments became imbricated with the same gendered assumptions at play in an American popular culture intimately concerned with connecting ‘normal’ and ‘heteronormal’.”
If a woman was a lesbian, perceived as sexually promiscuous or frigid, or didn’t want to be a wife or mother, she was labelled as sick and often given medication until she agreed to the path set out for her by patriarchal society (check out Women and Madness by Phyllis Chesler for more about this). However, this was also true for gay men or other people who didn’t fit into heteronormative society. Keep in mind, homosexuality was only removed from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the psychiatric bible of diagnosis) in 1986.
Holland is also not wrong in saying that women are overmedicated. She contends that “one in four women in America now takes a psychiatric medication, compared with one in seven men.” However, I would suggest that the disproportionate use of medication between men and women may be skewed by the fact that men are less likely to seek help for their mental health and are therefore less likely to be given medication. Men have been taught that they cannot show their emotions whereas women have been told it’s okay to be emotional (unless they’re too emotional, in which case they’re crazy or on their period). This ties back into the dangers of Holland’s assumptions about emotions and gender. If we believe that women are allowed to be emotional because it’s more “natural” to them and teach boys that they are not – how are the expected to then seek help when they are struggling with their mental health?
I would also argue that society as a whole, and not just women, are overmedicated. We want a quick fix for our mental health and therapy takes time. The global pharmaceutical industry is valued at approximately $300 billion and they spend roughly one third of all sales revenue on marketing rather than research. And it’s not just Big Pharma making profits on us popping pills. Doctors are profiting big-time by shilling certain medications over others. This has become such a major issue that one of Canada’s largest medical regulators, the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons, is barring doctors from receiving any gifts from pharmaceutical industries. And the same is happening in the U.S.
However, this isn’t to say that medication doesn’t have a role in treating mental illness. A lot of people, myself included, benefit from taking medication to manage our moods. It’s just that when your doctor and Big Pharma can team up to push a certain medication, you have to start questioning whether or not we really need that antidepressant or not.
It’s not that Holland’s op-ed is entirely wrong, it’s just that she lacks nuance and contextualization for a lot of her assertions. Both women and men are emotional beings who have the capability to suffer from mental illness. And whether you choose medication, therapy or both it’s important that you seek help for your mental health and choose the treatment that’s right for you.
In case you want to read more in response to Holland’s op-ed, The New York Times published a series of letters.