Women more likely to seek mental health support: Study

But many employees still fear stigma around mental illness
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/30/2016

Women are more likely than men to seek treatment or use workplace supports for issues such as depression, according to research from Morneau Shepell. 

Sixty-three per cent of the 227 individual users of its Depression Care program, delivered in partnership with existing workplace EFAPs (employee and family assistance programs), are women while just over 28 per cent are women over 50.

The finding is not terribly shocking when you take a look at general EAP usage, said Barb Veder, vice-president of clinical services and research lead at Morneau Shepell in Ottawa.

“That isn’t atypical. Women by far are more likely to seek help, and certainly the demographics very much play out to the demographics we would see for general counselling or general EAP or EFAP counselling,” she said. “It is quite a big difference.”

Men are not seeking out counselling and while women don’t necessarily have higher rates of depression, they have higher rates of seeking support, said Veder. It plays into the socialization of men in Western culture.  

“Women are much more likely to get help, and certainly for mental health issues, they’re much more likely to seek out help,” she said. “When we offer programs around wellness and we offer programs around fitness, we see a higher ratio of men participate.”

Boys are raised a bit differently than girls, said Dave Gallson, associate national director of the Mood Disorders Society of Canada in Guelph, Ont. 

“Girls are more likely to be encouraged to share their feelings, whereas boys, when they’re younger, are kind of more pushed towards keeping feelings bottled up,” he said. 

That has been the case for decades, he said — but even today, men are still to a large degree reluctant about coming forward, because of the need to be “manly.”

But progress is being made, said Gallson.

“We see that right now with the tragedy in Fort McMurray — people are now beginning to open up and express their real desperation and feelings of trauma. And that’s a wonderful thing,” he said, adding a large part of that is due to work being done to break down the stigma around mental health and make sure people do come forward. 

That’s particularly important considering the value of early intervention, said Veder. 

“If you get people help quickly, if you give them an impact program, they’re more likely to make progress. And it’s a combination of those two things,” she said. 

“The other thing is when you can work with the medical system and the counselling system in partnership, then people are more likely to be able to make some gains and to improve in their wellness.” 

Reluctant workforce 

Depression is a very common condition when it comes to mental health conditions among women,  accounting for close to 41.9 per cent of the disability from neuropsychiatric disorders among women compared to 29.3 per cent among men, according to the World Health Organization. But depression is not just a gender issue — it can impact anyone, said Gallson. 

About one in five individuals in Canada will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, according to Mental Health Commission of Canada research from 2011. 

And only about 23 per cent of Canadians feel comfortable discussing a mental health condition with their employers, according to a 2008 Canadian Medical Association study. 

In Ontario, 39 per cent of workers would not tell their managers if they were experiencing a mental health problem, according to a 2014 study in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 

Employers need to think strategically about how to banish stigma and fear of seeking help, and convince reluctant employees to actually reach out and use the resources, said Sarika Gundu, national director of workplace mental health program at the Canadian Mental Health Association in Toronto. 

“Employers really have to look in the mirror and ask themselves what kind of support do they have in their workplace that fosters good mental health? Is their workplace psychologically healthy and safe? Is it a trustful workplace where they can actually speak to someone and feel like they won’t be penalized or stigmatized?” she said. 

“Employers need to look within before they point the finger about why employees aren’t speaking up. There’s probably a reason why workers are reluctant, and most of the time it’s because they don’t trust workplaces. They feel that if there’s no internal champions that actually walk the talk when it comes to mental health, why should they open up?”

It’s not necessarily a male versus female issue, she said — it’s a workplace-wide issue. 

“Why would you open up to your manager if he might not even say good morning to you? Would you do that? Probably not. Would you use an EAP if it’s not promoted? Probably not,” she said. “If you don’t trust your work environment, you’re less likely to use any of their supports.”

Employers also need to address the awkwardness or fear factor among front-line managers and supervisors when it comes to addressing mental health, said Gallson. 

“Every organization needs some champions. They need leaders that are in leadership positions who will either come forward and talk about their own experiences with mental health issues, or a family member’s experiences with mental health issues. But you need people at the top to take this on and to champion this cause. It’s crucial,” he said. 

Even if the individual worker does not have a mental health issue, it can still affect him if someone he is close to does.

“They’re carrying all that stress and that worry and anxiety into the workplace with them. Their productivity is down, their concentration is down, their stress, their anxiety ripples, and they’re not performing at anywhere near their optimal abilities,” he said. 

“That’s why it’s crucial for employers to educate their staff and to make sure that resources and tools are available for when the staff need it.”

And it can’t just be lip service, said Gundu. 

“If you see that they’re talking about ‘We want to support employees’ mental health’ but there’s no ‘how,’ it becomes lip service. And employees — whether you’re male or female — won’t use any of those supports,” she said. 

“Employers, in order for them to really combat stigma, I think they need to walk the talk. They need to have training for all levels of employees — and not just about mental illness, but also how do you support someone you think might be struggling?”

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