Davis: Consider not just women’s history, but their mental health too

Women’s History Month is a time to reflect on the enormous social strides toward gender equality that we’ve made: today, nearly 60 percent of working age women are employed.

Record numbers of women are working in business and elected to high office, but these strides come with a new set of challenges we must learn to face.

Mary Davis

While women continue to even the professional playing field, many do so without leaving behind the domestic duties that generations ago were a full-time job in-and-of-themselves.

Our grandmothers may have been expected to spend their days cooking, cleaning, and raising the children; modern women often face the same expectations, only now they’re piled atop 40-hour work weeks. As women face a week of staff meetings and soccer practices, of emails and errands, it’s no wonder many women today report feeling overwhelmed or inadequate, regardless of their achievements.

Women often feel compelled to do well at everything — to be the finest employee, the greatest partner, the best friend, the perfect parent.

Everything in life is a high priority. But expecting excellence in all things is unrealistic.

Couple the demands of extremely busy schedules with the high standards many women feel compelled to try to live up to, and you have a recipe for high levels of psychological distress.

It’s a plight I see in young students as well as in older friends. To these women, the most important piece of advice I can offer is this: find a mentor.

The waters of life include periods where the waves seem overwhelming, the surf choppy and perilous, and cross-winds that seek to blow you off course. And just as you would not, for your very first time at sea, buy a ship and set off as captain and commander, you should not try to brave the waters of life all alone, not at first.

Find an experienced captain, a woman you admire who has navigated these waters before. Let her show you the ropes; let her help you map your course.

Pushing through the vulnerability that comes with asking for help can be difficult. But the tutelage of someone who has faced these same challenges and bested them is invaluable.

The second piece of advice I can offer came from my own mentor. She told me to think hard about my values, about what kind of contributions I wanted to make to the world, and to write them down and revisit them often.

This values list helps me to prioritize my choices in a world where everything can seem vitally important, to act with confidence, knowing that the things I choose to spend my time on are the things that make me happy and fulfilled.

To do otherwise, that is to agree to everything that comes your way, can lead to a sense that you are not in charge of your own life and are not spending time on what matters most to you.

Women have made great strides, and continue to advance.

So too must our research efforts to improve their health and mental well-being.

If you are passionate about these issues, please consider supporting the Institute for Mental Health Research, who has made supporting research into women’s mental-health a top priority. Visit imhr.org to learn more.

Editor’s Note: Mary Davis is a professor and associate chair at Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology.

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