Women are at the heart of the epidemic of mental ill-health—as healers as well as victims.
Last year saw the publication of the latest book by the feminist writer Rosa Montero, El Peligro de Estar Cuerda (‘The danger of being sane’). It’s an exciting study of the links between creativity and mental instability. It is also a journey through the minds of creative women—some thrown into oblivion and others, such as Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson or Virginia Woolf, still present everywhere in the memory.
The widespread adoption historically of a masculine point of view, as if neutral and universal, has rendered invisible women and their creative work, their role in society and their vital needs. Today, despite the advances of the feminist movement, social inequality continues to place women at greater risk of mental suffering from childhood.
Dickinson was abused by her father and brother from when she was a child and her work continues to reflect reality for millions of girls around the world. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, around 120 million girls—over one in ten—have suffered ‘forced sex or other forced sexual acts’ at some point in their lives. In some countries, at the hands of a husband this is legal. Child sexual abuse is stamped by gender, with around 90 per cent of perpetrators male and abuse rates for girls often three times as high as for boys.
The way the internet facilitates access to pornographic content only increases the scale of sexual crimes and problems of mental health. The World Health Organization has warned of the associated increase in mental ill-health in young people and recognises, for the first time, ‘compulsive sexual behaviour’ as a mental disorder.
Become part of our Community of Thought Leaders
Get fresh perspectives delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter to receive thought-provoking opinion articles and expert analysis on the most pressing political, economic and social issues of our time. Join our community of engaged readers and be a part of the conversation.
After childhood, women in adulthood continue to face many social challenges which generate stress, anxiety and anguish. Louise Bourgeois’ artistic work did not begin to take shape until her children had left home. During the years of motherhood her activity came to a stop and she only began to produce art when she was already over 70 years old.
Alma Mahler, wife of Gustav, was an important composer in her own right, yet she was referred to as a muse, an inspiration to creative men of the time. The terms of her marriage contract included abandoning her artistic vocation to devote herself fully to her marriage. While such a clause would be unthinkable today, many women are still obliged to abandon their careers to take care of children.
How many brilliant minds has childcare stolen from us because this is understood as an exclusively female function?
Plath took her own life, leaving behind two children, when she learned of the relationship her husband, Ted Hughes, had established with Assia Wevill. Wevill, a forgotten poet and single parent, would herself commit suicide, taking her four-year-old daughter with her, two years later.
Depression or anxiety
Today 14 per cent of households with children (7.8 million households) in the European Union are headed by single women. Two out of ten lone mothers with dependent children have had or have some type of mental disorder associated with depression or anxiety, according to a report by Save the Children in Spain.
Household tasks such as domestic chores and caring for dependents, which entail a physical and mental burden, are considered ‘female’ in all cultures. These tasks have no social recognition despite the enormous emotional wear and tear they cause.
Nor can we lose sight of the social factors that influence individuals’ health, such as poverty, social class or migration. Migrant women arrive alone or with their children in a new country and have to support family members remaining in their country of origin while normally only being able to secure domestic work.
In Latin America the number of children abandoned by their father is truly alarming: in Colombia today 39 per cent of households are headed by a woman, in Mexico 29 per cent and in Argentina 19 per cent, according to United Nations data. Many mothers find themselves alone, forced to migrate with their children to give them a better life. Recently in Spain, a Colombian woman was arrested for leaving her four-year-old daughter alone at home to go to her night work. Without resources to pay for a nanny and the duty to feed her daughter, what else could she do?
Support Progressive Ideas: Become a Social Europe Member!
Support independent publishing and progressive ideas by becoming a Social Europe member for less than 5 Euro per month. You can help us create more high-quality articles, podcasts and videos that challenge conventional thinking and foster a more informed and democratic society. Join us in our mission - your support makes all the difference!
Women suffer more mental-health disorders for many reasons. But these are associated above all with the structural problems of our society and work-life imbalance.
Juan José Millás said that writing cauterises wounds. For creative women, art and science serve as a cauterising instrument of the mind, but many are not lucky enough to be able to turn to artistic expression.
In the United Kingdom the proportion of musicians, writers and artists belonging by origin to the working class has halved since the 1970s—from 16.4 to 7.9 per cent. The findings of this study would likely be similar in EU countries, with the proportions falling drastically when it comes to women with children.
The outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008 underpinned a reality emerging since the 90s. This was the rise of big data and mass culture, which would relegate the humanities to a form of entertainment—more related to free time than to education, critical awareness or the capacity to form a free and responsible citizenry.
Financial and technological power has been displacing cultural power in these years and with that go the foundations of society, transformed little by little into what Zygmunt Bauman called a ‘liquid’ world. All great civilisations have been built on the foundations of cultural power. Without culture there is no collective identity and without identity there is no possibility for the individual to achieve self-knowledge and, consequently, mental wellbeing. The mental-health pandemic is profoundly related to this lack of referents and cultural attachment points, the vertebrae of a community.
Many professions have mutated or emerged out of nowhere in response to the acceleration of technology and information, as well as the value assigned to certain tasks. Meanwhile digital reading could be favouring inability to read, due to the tendency to scan digitalised text in a fragmented manner—undermining the capacity for concentration and profound understanding. In a context dominated by the instantaneous transmission of data, resorting to old formats such as a book, a play or a painting has become a luxury within reach only of those who have the means, time and education.
Yet, as Fernando Pessoa aptly pointed out, ‘the existence of literature is clear proof that life is not enough’. Today we could add something like ‘the existence of the book is clear proof that technology is not enough’. The material format creates connections of great relevance for the construction of thought and mental health. Narrative capacity springs from personal intimacy and only a physical format is able to anchor it in the real and, therefore, in our most profound mental construction.
That is why we need those women artists who talk about what we do not know how to describe, who go far beyond the simple analysis of objective realities. We need their books to open the doors to other sensitive and creative women who—thanks to their originality and ‘madness’—make our lives more sensible and healthy.