Kiwi women are popping pills to deal with stress and anxiety at an alarming rate – and experts fear the situation is only going to get worse. The NEXT Report revealed almost one in three women have taken medication to manage mental health issues, with that figure rising to 36 per cent among those aged 50 and over. A massive 72 per cent believe they’re at greater risk of burnout than ever before.
These figures come as no surprise to those working in mental health, who say the problem has been spiralling out of control for some years, with no sign of slowing down. Shaun Robinson, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, points out that almost half of New Zealand’s adult population will be diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime, and the number of medications to treat them has been skyrocketing for more than a decade.
“For women, the likelihood increases,” he adds, pointing to statistics showing they’re up to 40 per cent more likely than men to be diagnosed with a mental disorder. “Women have long had that difficult balance between the benefits of a career, the necessity of having a second income and often the other job of being the primary child-rearer. With pressures mounting in the workplace – particularly with the advent of digital technology and the expectation of availability 24/7 – as well as the demands of home life and social conditions such as entrenched poverty and the housing situation, it’s easy to see why women are under a lot of pressure.”
The New Zealand Health Survey 2015/16 backs up this concerning picture. It explored the number of Kiwis who had experienced psychological distress in the previous four weeks alone: nearly one in 10 women admitted they had, compared to 5 per cent of men. The overall total of almost 7 per cent of people experiencing distress was a rise from 4.5 per cent of the population in 2011/12.
Not surprisingly, substantial shocks – such as an earthquake – exacerbate the problem. While 32 per cent of women nationwide have taken medication for stress, anxiety or depression, that figure rises to 34 per cent in Canterbury and 35 per cent in the South Island as a whole. It falls in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions, dropping to 28 per cent.
“You add in something like a significant natural disaster, and there’s a clear correlation between that and increased levels of anxiety and depression.”
The Mental Health Foundation's 5 steps to better mental health
MOVE Physical activity stimulates positive feelings and emotions.
CONNECT A breadth and depth of personal relationships is a fundamental human need that’s critical to mental wellbeing.
LEARN Keeping the mind active and inquisitive creates a sense of competency and purpose.
NOTICE Mindfulness and appreciating the little things heightens self-knowledge and has been shown to improve wellbeing.
GIVE The process of giving others your time, effort and emotional support is strongly linked with positive feelings and functioning.
Although it’s common to look at a situation – whether overload, grief or deprivation – and link that directly to mental state, researchers increasingly believe the problem is less to do with the circumstances causing it, and more about the way we deal with it.
The NEXT Report found 60 per cent of women feel there aren’t enough hours in the day and 44 per cent are always rushing – conditions that can’t easily be remedied for those who are juggling multiple responsibilities. What can be altered, however, is our response to this way of life.
Author and motivational speaker Sarah Laurie spent considerable time with scientists at the University of California in Berkeley when writing her book Stress Less, and her research convinced her that stress is managed in the brain.
“We need to stop thinking we’re stressed because of how busy we are,” Laurie says, adding there’s a continuum from experiencing stress, to becoming anxious, to clinical depression, or something that feels like depression. “It’s actually more a case of what then happens in our brains that goes on to cause stress. In my view, we’re biologically designed to thrive and we can cope with life’s challenges, but we need to prepare our brains to manage stress – and that’s what we’re not doing.”
It’s a view echoed by Robinson. “Part of the objective is to have the resilience to cope with the ups and downs of life,” he says. “For example, there’s been an increase in the number of people fronting up to emergency departments around the country with mental health concerns. Clinicians are saying people’s distress has come from issues that should not have caused a crisis if they had better skills and resilience.”
Resilience is something one in four women who responded to the survey felt they’re lacking – a figure that rises to 31 per cent for those under the age of 34.
If coping with inevitable mental stressors is about the brain’s response, medication might seem like a suitable solution, shoring up the mind so we don’t experience those symptoms. For women seeking a quick fix – and for under-resourced doctors who are trying to help patients during 15-minute appointments – it seems the obvious option. But it’s far from the only one.
“Medications have their place, but that’s within a holistic response to mental health and wellbeing,” says Robinson, adding that he believes there should be more resources invested in building our resilience and wellbeing before crisis strikes. “GPs do the best they can, but they need more time and the ability to be able to prioritise those who are in distress.”
Gen Ys appear to be the least likely to seek medication for stress, anxiety and depression, though Robinson says younger women are generally more at risk of mental distress.
Laurie is also concerned for our youth. “I get worried about how quickly our teenagers are being prescribed medication for depression,” she says. “I think as soon as someone goes to a doctor and it sounds like they’re not coping, they’re being prescribed medication – when there are more robust options they can be taking.”
Those ‘something elses’ are numerous. The Mental Health Foundation promotes a five-step response that can stop women slipping into crisis mode, and help pull us out of it (see page 83). Robinson, who himself suffers from bipolar disorder, notes that for some, these strategies will work best in tandem with medication, but believes they’re useful for everyone.
Laurie found herself bedridden thanks to stress nine years ago and suggests trying the four activities that were transformative for her (see below).
“I experienced improvements within weeks, however I’d say over the course of 18 months to two years, they changed how I live my life,” she says. “People say, ‘I don’t have two years’, but the answer is you have to take those two years or you’re not going to enjoy your life. Your work will break down, you’ll fracture your relationship at home and you won’t enjoy your children. This is the magnitude of the result of not looking after the brain and body.”
Next month: The NEXT Report reveals the extent to which Kiwi women have embraced technology. But has it made us more vulnerable?
Sarah Laurie's stress busters
There are two types of breathing and each has a purpose. A thoracic or chest breath is a short intake designed to trigger your stress response and ensure survival. It’s about ‘fight or flight’, and it’s the way stressed people regularly breathe. A diaphragmatic or belly breath is an instruction to your brain that everything’s okay. It involves breathing deeply into the lungs, causing the stomach to rise and turning on the parts of the brain that enable you to think clearly, remain calm and problem-solve, which can’t work effectively if the stress response is switched on. Before you get out of bed in the morning, take 10 diaphragmatic breaths. Throughout the day, pause every 90 minutes and breathe deeply into your stomach for a total of 60 seconds.
Conduct an audit
Do you wake in the morning thinking about everything you have to do and worrying about being late? If you’re constantly fretting over what might actually be inconsequential, that becomes your mindset – one of worry and feeling overwhelmed – which triggers stress. To break this pattern, turn your attention to something positive – even if it’s just picturing the smiling face of your mum or child. At 90-minute intervals, cast your mind to that positive thought.
Break the pattern
Your brain automates the things you do most, so if you’re always worrying or rushing, this will become a neural pattern. It’s important to break those negative patterns, and practice being constructive – doing things such as breathing properly or thinking about solutions.
Manage screen time
Scrolling on an electronic device is a major disrupter of the brain, grabbing the attention only to scramble it. Flicking through Facebook might feel momentarily relaxing, but it’s over-stimulating the brain as it works hard to process all that information at the rate you are consuming it. Technology is essential, but it’s important to strategically allocate time off screen. Ideally, stop looking at screens an hour before you go to bed.
As told to the NEXT Report
“I haven’t figured out how to reduce my stress levels. I’m stressed now just thinking about it.”
– 30-34, Wellington “My lack of money and inability to improve my financial situation causes me the most stress. To reduce it, I try to do things that relax me, such as gardening, reading and having a glass of wine.”
– 40-44, Wellington
“To reduce stress, I try to sit and be still with my husband in the evenings.”
– 65-69, Waikato-Bays
“The best thing for me is to walk my dogs every day – it’s really good for reducing my stress.”
– 55-59 Auckland
“Lack of finance causes me stress and aggravates my ongoing problem with anxiety. I keep busy, do colouring-in and take medication at times.”
– 70+ Otago-Southland
“I have PTSD from the Christchurch earthquakes. I attempt to de-stress by doing crosswords, reading, watching TV and having the occasional whisky.”
– 70+ Auckland