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Do we need more chats and fewer prescriptions?

Recent figures show that nearly 10% of Australians take anti-depressants. We’ve got the second highest rate of use in the world after Iceland. (I know, Iceland?) But how does this impact older women?

Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicate that at all ages women have more mental health problems than men, though you have to wonder whether this reflects the fact that more women seek help.

Much of our Australian information on women and depression comes from a 20-year study known as The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH).

While menopause is characterised as a time of mental health issues — “I’m low on estrogen… and I have a gun…” and so on — ALSWH statistics show that it’s younger women who have more problems. 

And in middle-age low estrogen is often not the main concern. It’s that we can be simultaneously juggling the needs of our children and our parents, on top of other life stresses. In addition, we might have to deal with hot flushes, mood swings and poor sleep.

Older women in their 70s and 80s living independently seem to be relatively mentally healthy, though the ALSWH argues that depression in this group can go undiagnosed.

This research also indicated that many women are uncomfortable about taking medication and they think GPs are too quick to prescribe it. 

Moreover, they see their problems as being about family, relationships, health, work or finances rather than a medical condition. 

Most feel that it’s more valuable to talk things over with a psychologist, or a female friend or relative. They also prefer female GPs. 

They’re not alone in thinking like this. While there’s a place for medication, many commentators argue that we’re pathologizing normal emotions such as grief, stress and loneliness, and giving people a pill when perhaps what they really need is love, support and time.

While lifestyle measures can’t provide those things, they’re still important. 

Given we’re recognising the connection between our gut, brain and immune system, it makes sense to eat well, with minimal processed food. 

And I don’t think I’ve come across a study on physical activity and mental health that doesn’t show a positive link. So keep active. 

Depression can be complex, but at all ages and stages, diet, physical activity, stress reduction and sleep help to keep us mentally healthy. 

That and talking to a woman you trust.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018 | Rhonda Anderson