Why Mental Health Issues Are Accelerating In Australian Women

October 13, 2021

Why Mental Health Issues Are Accelerating In Australian Women

Social isolation, increased workload in the home and escalating uncertainty, driven by COVID-19 restrictions, are accelerating mental health and wellbeing issues in Australian women.

The self-concept theory relating to subjective change and mental health (Keyes & Ryff, 2000) provides a basis to understand how life disruption driven by COVID-19 partnered with gender roles are impacting women’s self-perception, self-esteem, and motivation.

When life routines are disrupted unexpectedly, self-esteem, and feelings of control over one’s environment are impacted (Janoff-Bulman, 1992) propelling the need to adapt, resulting in increased distress (Brown & McGill, 1989).

This shift in behaviour influences one’s beliefs about the self and whether they feel they have grown or declined as a result of the changes made. This is how self-concept evolves as a result of subjective change. When the life change made is perceived as negative the impact can cause a “double dose” (Keyes & Ryff 2000, p.264) effect, concurrently reducing one’s positive and increasing one’s negative mental health.

Life disruption for women is ubiquitous when it comes to COVID-19 as they were more likely to lose their jobs (Ruppanner et al., 2021), especially if they found themselves with young children and home support removed (Petts et al. 2021,). Loss of income security is often perceived as a negative change, which could partially explain why being female in the pandemic has a direct relationship with higher levels of psychological distress (Rahman et al., 2020). According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2021) almost 3 million women (23%) are experiencing high psychological distress with just 35% feeling their wellbeing is between good and very good, a 35% decline from pre-COVID times (Deloitte, 2021). 

The significant disruption to home life as a result of COVID-19 suggests compromised self-consistency in women elevating feelings of distress and adversely impacting self-concept (Keyes & Ryff, 2000). Self-consistency is repeated behaviour that provides feelings of serenity, certainty and confidence which in turn motivates action (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2021).

The pervasive nature of gender roles has meant that women, who already outpaced their male partners in the realm of home care pre-COVID-19 (United Nations, 2020), assumed the bulk of the increased in-home workload (Ruppanner et al., 2021). Maintaining self-consistency could prove challenging in a COVID-19 world where 61% of women experienced an increase in home chores whilst 76% highlighted that their paid workload had grown (Deloitte, 2021).  The increase in paid and at home workload along with an end to domestic support is likely to have disrupted women’s beliefs in their ability to manage it all, to the point where 23% are now considering opting out of paid work (Deloitte, 2021, p.6).

The desire for self enhancement provides a lever to positively influence one’s self-concept (Keyes & Ryff, 2020). Yet when life disruption occurs, self enhancement can feel elusive, stifling growth, self-belief, and impacting one’s mental wellbeing adversely. With ongoing worry about job loss, a home workload that feels overwhelming, restless sleep, and increased anxiety rife in Australian women (Worsening of Australian Women’s Experiences under COVID-19, 2020) the likelihood of there being room or energy for self enhancement is low.

Research undertaken by Stanton et al. (2020), highlighted the decline in self enhancement practices during COVID-19, with 48.9% of Australian adults decreasing their physical activity, 40.7% increasing their alcohol intake, and 48.9% experiencing compromised sleep. These shifts in behaviour are connected with elevated mental health challenges in which women indicated considerably heightened scores.

Whilst the evidence clearly supports the exacerbation of mental health and wellbeing issues in Australian women as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, with approximately ten million Australians still under lockdown (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021), it is likely that these challenges are understated. The self-concept theory highlights an opportunity to invest in initiatives that support women in making self enhancement adaptions that elevate feelings of self-consistency which is likely to improve self-confidence, intrinsic motivation, action (Keyes & Ryff, 2000), and wellbeing.

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Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2021) Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, June 2021.Retrieved September 18, 2021, from  https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/household-impacts-covid-19-survey/latest-release.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2021). Regional population, 2019-20 financial year. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/population/regional-population/latest-release

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Petts, R. J., Carlson, D. L., & Pepin, J. R. (2021). A gendered pandemic: Childcare, home schooling, and parents’ employment during COVID-19. Gender, Work & Organization, 28(S2), 515–534. https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12614

Rahman, M. A., Hoque, N., Alif, S. M., Salehin, M., Islam, S. M. S., Banik, B., Sharif, A., Nazim, N. B., Sultana, F., & Cross, W. (2020). Factors associated with psychological distress, fear and coping strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia. Globalization and Health, 16(1), 95. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12992-020-00624-w

Ruppanner, L., Tan, X., Scarborough, W., Landivar, L. C., & Collins, C. (2021). Shifting Inequalities? Parents’ Sleep, Anxiety, and Calm during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Australia and the United States. Men and Masculinities, 24(1), 181–188. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X21990737

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