Access to Disability Data

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Chartbook on Women and Disability

Section 5: Mental disorders and disability: Gender differences

Major national surveys are better at measuring disabilities due to physical conditions than disabilities due to mental disorders. People with mental disorders are a highly stigmatized group, and under-reporting almost certainly "conceals the true prevalence of mental disorders, the extent of disability and their combined impact on family and friends" (Kennedy, Carlson, Üstün, Regier, Norquist, Sirovatka, 1997, p. 133). In addition, some areas of daily living in which people with mental disorders typically experience limitation (notably, social relationships) are less clearly defined or measured as domains of disability. There is a corresponding lack of national-level information on the relationship between mental disorder and disability. However, a recent international study predicts that, within the next two decades, mental disorders will become the second leading worldwide cause of premature death and years lived with a disability (Murray and Lopez, 1996). For women, one mental condition, unipolar major depression, will become the single leading worldwide cause of premature death and years lived with disability, the same study predicts. These staggering figures point to the need for improved, nationally representative studies to better understand the disability impact of mental disorders.

In this section, nationally representative as well as smaller surveys are used to estimate the prevalence of mental disorders and ensuing disabilities among women and men. Limitations of the surveys are noted in the text and described in more detail in the Appendix. Clearly, more exploration is needed to understand gender differences in mental disorders as well as to evaluate existing services and develop new programs that meet the unique needs of women and men with disabilities due to mental disorders.

Topic Questions:

5.1. Are women more likely than men to experience a mental or psychiatric disorder?

5.2. Do women use more mental health services than men?

5.3. What is the extent of disability due to mental disorders?

5.4. Are there gender differences in limitations due to serious mental illness?