Young women have become a high risk group when it comes to mental illness, according to the latest findings from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (2014). The prevalence of common mental disorders and bipolar disorder are significantly higher among women aged 16-24 than they are among any other demographic.
Particularly striking are the figures for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition characterised by flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance, numbing and hypervigilance. In 2014, 13% of women in this age group screened positive for PTSD compared with 4% of men in the same age group. Also striking is how rates of screening positive for PTSD are relatively stable among men regardless of their age (ranging from 3.6% for 16-24 year olds to 0.4% for 75+), while prevalence is much higher among young women, and sharply declines with age.
Why are young women particularly prone to PTSD?
In APMS, trauma is defined as an event which put the participant or someone close to them at a risk of serious harm or death, such as a major natural disaster, murder or suicide of a loved one, a serious car accident or rape. Although we didn’t ask follow-up questions about what traumatic experience may have led to PTSD, official statistics indicate that younger women are more likely to experience sexual assault than any other demographic group. This was also highlighted in a recent report looking at sexual harassment and sexual violence in English schools, published by the Women and Equalities Committee, which reported that the majority of girls aged 13-21 (59%) had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the previous year.
But the answer to why young women develop signs of PTSD more frequently than young men could lie not only in the type of trauma experienced but also in how men and women react differently to trauma, and the criteria clinicians currently use to diagnose the condition.
A recent analysis of PTSD research suggested that men and women respond to trauma differently; while men may tend to externalise trauma through anger, violence or drug problems, women may tend to internalise their trauma in a way that meets current diagnosable criteria of PTSD. This internalising could lead to some aspects of PTSD such as flashbacks and nightmares arising some time after the initial traumatic event.
While APMS can’t tell us for certain whether the type of trauma typically experienced more by women (such as rape and sexual violence) contributes to higher levels of PTSD among this group, the survey’s findings should be a wake-up call to politicians and public health practitioners. We need to understand what is causing young women to develop disproportionately high levels of mental illness - including finding out about prevalence of mental illness among children - and make sure that their specific needs are adequately met.