Understanding Women’s Mental Health Over a Lifetime: A Guide

By July 9, 2024July 17th, 2024Women's Mental Health

Here at Villa Kali Ma, we believe in the power of gender specific treatment for women. We focus on offering services that foster mental health, trauma healing, and addiction recovery specifically for women.

Throughout the life of a woman, different mental health topics come to the fore, based on changing developmental stages. Read on for Villa Kali Ma’s overview of how women’s mental health may evolve over a lifetime.

What role do sex and gender play in mental health?

Sex and gender both play a part in mental health. There are biological differences – hormonal, chromosomal, and reproductive – between men and women, which have impacts on mental illness and recovery. Differences in social roles and expectations assigned to femininity versus masculinity also affect mental health significantly.

Some mental health disorders are more prevalent among women, for biological and/or societal reasons. Women also experience trauma and addiction in gendered ways.

Mental Health in Childhood: ADHD in girls

a-young-woman-practicing-yogaMental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum. On the contrary, it is quite fluid and exists within the contexts and dynamics of the people we are most closely bonded with. During childhood, girls are not yet individuated psychologically from their family systems and are merged with their families as a whole, for better or for worse.

If a family is reasonably healthy and resourced, a girl has a better chance of having healthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. On the flip side, if a girl grows up in a family that is experiencing serious mental health trouble, for example in which a parent has an addiction or in which a main caregiver has major unhealed trauma themselves, the child is likely to have symptoms.

One way to understand symptoms experienced by girls is through the trauma lens, as children are psychologically and physiologically damaged by adverse childhood events like neglect, abuse, and various common forms of household trouble.

However, mental health troubles often also arise in children who are supported in reasonably healthy families. Even when protected and nourished by ideal family conditions, children are very vulnerable and can be affected negatively by many stressors that adults can handle without problem.

Little girls’ mental and emotional states are affected by their experiences in school and with their peers. They are also impacted at biological levels by exposure to chemicals through pollution, lack of access to green space, poor nutrient quality of food, and other environmental factors.

While biological differences between males and females are less important until puberty, girls are nevertheless affected by gender impacts at any age. The overall cultural devaluation of femininity (or conditional valuation of femininity for certain uses only, such as to be attractive or helpful) begins eroding a female-born person’s self-esteem right at birth.

One mental health condition that affects some girls is attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. The symptoms of ADHD are impulsiveness, trouble with attention, and hyperactivity. Girls are less likely to manifest hyperactivity and less likely to behave in ways that adults find disruptive. Nevertheless, girls may still be having problems with attention, which impacts their ability to organize, remember, make decisions, and prioritize.

The following symptoms are considered signs that a girl may be having trouble with ADHD-like symptoms:

  • Difficulty paying attention during class
  • Difficulty keeping up with schoolwork
  • Dreaminess
  • Higher than average levels of anxiety
  • Social withdrawal
  • Verbal aggressiveness (like teasing or name-calling)

However, please keep in mind that many conditions present in the same way, and each child is a unique being deserving of careful attention to understand what’s at play before concluding that a mental health disorder is the reason for a child’s behavior.

Depression, Anxiety, and Eating Disorders: Women’s Mental Health During Adolescence

During adolescence, mental health symptoms bloom for all humans, and preexisting tendencies become more prominent. Many fluctuations in mood and energy are explained by the effects of new hormones. Equally, the difficult social-emotional experiences of puberty, which represent a psychological stage of development, place great pressure on the psyche of a child.

Teenage girls are most prone to experiencing depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. These conditions may present separately or together.


Depression is generally manifested as a low mood (feeling down), negative thoughts, loss of interest in previous sources of enjoyment, and loss of physical energy, sometimes leading to an increase in the need for sleep. A depressed teenage girl may appear lethargic and sad, may withdraw from her friends, and become socially isolated. The struggle with girls experiencing depression for the first time is that they may not have words to communicate the onset of bleakness, heaviness, and desire to withdraw emotionally.

The most important thing to understand about depression is that it can be dangerous. Depression is connected with self-harm, attempted suicide, and risky behavior. Depression can also be part of substance use and/or a sign of having sustained a sexual trauma of some kind.

Common sources of depression include bullying and peer group related pain, such as exclusion by “mean girls”. Depression may be a signal of sexual boundary violation or traumatization, and it’s important to understand how vulnerable girls are to inappropriate sexual expressions by adults and peers.

If depression is observed, it’s important to engage, express care, offer help, and give love. If addressed in time, the wound to the soul may be healed before depression becomes a lingering state of being.


Anxiety is a common kind of suffering among teenage girls. In general, women are considered to be twice as likely as men to manifest symptoms of anxiety, and that is true in adolescence too.

Anxiety is excessive worry and tension and may include intrusive thoughts and obsessive behavior.  An anxious girl may appear worried and preoccupied, have looping thoughts, or be unable to relax.

As with depression, anxiety can be introduced by hormonal changes and is also a psychological response to a change in developmental stage. Anxiety may present as pressure placed upon oneself to perform well academically, to have a perfect appearance (leading to obsessive dieting or other disordered food behaviors), or other forms of perfectionism. Anxiety is also commonly somatically experienced, for example as a stomach ache.

Some signs of anxiety include:

  • Worrying about things that are out of one’s control
  • Physical body tension
  • Worried, uneasy appearance
  • Fidgeting, inability to relax
  • Obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors

Eating Disorders

Teenage girls frequently struggle with eating disorders. For many reasons, young women are socially trained to identify with their body weight, size, and shape, and to find self-worth (or more often, lack thereof) by critically examining how they appear in the mirror or photographs.

Eating disorders are more common among women than men in general. Adolescence tends to be the time in which eating disorders start and can include self-starving, fad dieting, self-induced vomiting, overeating, and even abuse of laxatives.

Eating disorders are very serious mental health conditions and are a form of self-harm that has addictive and compulsive aspects. Eating disorders have many physical health impacts, including damage to major organs, and are also psychologically damaging, resulting in arrested development and impairments.

Some signs of an eating disorder include:

  • Obsession with weight and body image
  • Obsession with monitoring calorie intake
  • Restricting food and dieting, trying to lose weight
  • Food rituals
  • Thin, dry brittle hair, degrading teeth and fingernails

Mental Health in Women During Adulthood: Reproductive-related mental health issues in women

During adulthood, women’s mental health continues to be affected by hormones as a strong factor in overall well-being.

Premenstrual Syndrome

A common, recurrent impact for many women is Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS). Over the week before and sometimes also during menstruation, reproductive hormones may negatively affect mood, self-esteem, and energy levels.

PMS is often accompanied by headaches, moodiness, and physical bloat. These conditions may be experienced more dramatically by women who already struggle with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder

In cases where symptoms are extreme, a woman might be given a diagnosis of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), a more severe form of PMS. When a woman has severe mood swings, irritability, and significant depression every month, she may meet the criteria for such a diagnosis.

However, the diagnosis of PMDD is generally reserved for women who are affected to such a degree that it is interfering with important life functions, for example, if it is affecting work and relationships. PMDD is more common among women who also have depression and anxiety.

Postpartum Depression

Women can also be affected by hormone fluctuations connected with giving birth. Postpartum depression, or the baby blues, can create mood swings, depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and overwhelm. Postpartum depression is more severe for women who already struggle with anxiety or depression.


As a woman shifts out of her reproductive years, hormones again become a factor in mood and state of being. Many women experience depression and anxiety, partly in response to changes in phase of life. Again, women who have depression and anxiety already tend to experience hormonal impacts more intensely than other women.

Other mental health disorders in women

Due to biological and social impacts, women experience mental health disorders in gendered ways.

Substance Use Disorders

Substance use disorders have critical impacts on the body, mind, and spirit, negatively affecting relationships, work, and finances.

In terms of numbers, men make up the majority of people addicted to drugs and alcohol, though women’s use of drugs and alcohol is on the rise. Women are more likely to be prescribed addictive prescription drugs such as opiates and anti-anxiety drugs.

Women who do use substances are more likely than men to progress quickly through the stages of addiction, becoming dependent on substances. Women appear to experience greater pain levels during withdrawals and have a higher rate of relapse than men.

The stressors that cause women to seek out drugs and alcohol tend to be different than for men. Social obligations and family roles, such as parenting and caregiving of elders feature more prominently in sources of stress.

Substance use disorders frequently start during teenage years, manifesting as addiction during adulthood.

Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline personality disorder is a difficult mental health condition affecting many people. BPD symptoms include emotional instability, impulsive behavior, intense attachment problems (fear of abandonment) leading to dramatic interpersonal relationships, and severe problems with self-worth. BPD is associated with intense anger, depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal gestures, substance abuse, and risky sexual behaviors.

BPD has a history of being prescribed much more often to women than to men. It is now believed to have been over-diagnosed in the past because of cultural bias against women. Currently, it is believed to affect men and women equally.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a painful condition that involves severe mood swings, between mania and depression. There are different types of Bipolar Disorder, and one of them (Bipolar II) is believed to affect women more than men. Men and women are equally likely to have Bipolar I.

In general, women who have bipolar disorder are likely to also have other health problems and to be more affected by hormone-induced mood problems such as depression after giving birth.

Dementia: Mental Health in Older Adulthood

In older adulthood, mental health struggles for women center on dementia, especially Alzheimer’s, which affects more women than men.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s include forgetting important names and faces (such as loved ones) and struggles with executive functioning.

How can a woman struggling with mental health look to the future?

At Villa Kali Ma, we believe that at any stage of life, a woman has many internal resources working in her favor. Assets like intelligence, resilience, humor, and kindness get us through and make meaning out of difficulty.

We have our hearts and our creativity, and we are adaptable creatures. Life asks us to use the many gifts we are given, to face challenges that shift and change over time, as we do.

Looking into the future, a woman can expect both that her resilience will be on her side, and that there will be times of needing more help than before.

We are not meant to stay the same. We change, and so does our mental health.

It’s important to know that at no stage is it necessary to go it alone unless we want that. Whatever aspect of our womanly life we are facing, there are women by the millions who are going through the same, and many elders ahead of us with wisdom to spare. In our common experiences, there is strength, laughter, comfort, and joy in great abundance.

Villa Kali Ma can help women ages 30-60 with mental health

an-older-woman-meditatingAt Villa Kali Ma, we help women discover their native gifts for mental health, from deep within themselves. With a signature combination of clinical Western modalities and Eastern healing approaches, we guide each woman who comes through our doors to find her unique path through her unique life.

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