The most emailed article on the New York Times website over the weekend, “Medicating Women’s Feelings”, was by a female psychiatrist concerned about a boom in the number of Americans taking psychiatric medications and, in particular, the number of women. Julie Holland reckons that at least one in four women now takes such medication, and one in seven men.
This is “insane”, she says, and one has to agree with her. But it is her opening that really amazed me:
“Women are moody. By evolutionary design, we are hard-wired to be sensitive to our environments, empathetic to our children’s needs and intuitive of our partners’ intentions. This is basic to our survival and that of our offspring.”
You could have knocked me down with a feather. Ruled by our emotions rather than reason? By evolutionary design? Hard-wired, indeed? Aren’t we supposed to believe these days that behaviour is all by social conditioning, that the body has very little to do with it, and that it’s time to give women their head and men their heart?
Perhaps 90 percent of those emails were sent by feminists and gender studies professors fuming at the biological drift of Julie Holland’s assertions:
“Some research suggests that women are often better at articulating their feelings than men because as the female brain develops, more capacity is reserved for language, memory, hearing and observing emotions in others.”
Oh? What about all the female brains that are getting better every day at analysing the stock market and manipulating genes? What about the enlightened view that the human race is not just male and female but expresses itself in a spectrum of genders which we are now seeing in all its beautiful diversity?
On the other hand, perhaps it was hundreds of ordinary women forwarding that article to their friends, saying, “Gee, this strikes a chord, don’t you think?”
Holland throws a sop to the gender crowd by noting that her observations are “not intended to mesh with any kind of pro- or anti-feminist ideology”, but she sticks to her biological guns. I guess that is because she is a health professional who actually deals with individual women who are distressed in one way or another and wants to help them, not turn society upside down.
What’s bothering her is the way drug companies and some doctors are exploiting the natural ups and downs of women’s feelings, convincing women through advertising on daytime talk shows and in magazines that their mood swings are pathological and need medicating. Women seeking prescriptions for antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs are creating the “new normal”.
And yet, says the psychiatrist, “The new, normal is at odds with women’s dynamic biology; brain and body chemicals are meant to be in flux.” That’s because of what the menstrual cycle does to their hormones. If they feel irritable, dissatisfied, or even like crying under the demands at home or the meanness of the boss at work, that’s all quite natural. It may even alert them to things that really need changing in their lives, including lack of sleep and outdoor exercise.
Start taking pills (most commonly those which regulate serotonin, the “it’s all good” brain chemical) that keep you on an artificially even keel and you risk numbing yourself physically and emotionally. Some women find themselves less interested in sex; others report that, along with less irritation, sadness, anger and worry, they also feel less empathy, are less creative and less inclined to express their feelings over all.
“If the serotonin levels of women are constantly, artificially high, they are at risk of losing their emotional sensitivity with its natural fluctuations, and modelling a more masculine, static, hormonal balance. This emotional blunting encourages women to taken on behaviours that are typically approved by men: appearing to be invulnerable, for instance, a stance that might help women move up in male-dominated businesses.”
What is really interesting in all this is Holland’s assumption that human biology has an ethical meaning: if you feel bad physically or mentally your body is telling you something and you had better listen and perhaps change, not just get a script for Prozac and carry on as before. This stands in contrast with the trend of treating the body as a lump of matter attached to the mind that we can tinker with and reshape to fit with our desires or the demands made on us.
If women are now being medicated for depression and anxiety at twice the rate of men it is because, over the past 50 years, they have suffered most from this cavalier attitude to the body. Let’s remember that before the drug-industrial complex got onto medicating women’s feelings they had already been medicating women’s reproductive chemistry. And for the same reason: to make sure women’s bodies did not get in the way of social and economic goals.
For the sake of a world with fewer people consuming more stuff, the contraceptive pill was invented and women obediently swallowed it. Now they are swallowing pills that will keep them emotionally reconciled to the type of consumerist, work-dominated world the pill has created. Feminists and psychiatrists alike have largely failed to address this.
“Women’s emotionality is a sign of health, not disease; it is a source of power. But we are under constant pressure to restrain our emotional lives. We have been taught to apologise for our tears, to suppress our anger and to fear being called hysterical.”
We could say exactly the same about the biological purpose to which female emotionality is directed:
“Women’s fertility is a sign of health, not of disease; a source of power. But they are under constant pressure to restrain it, to apologise for getting pregnant, and to suppress their anger and fear at being cheated (as increasingly they are) of its natural flowering.”
This too, to use Holland’s word, is insane. If psychiatrists, at least, recognised that, we would be on the way to solving the epidemic of mental suffering among women.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.