Jenny Higgins UW-Madison Gender and Women's Studies

As If the World Was Male

Freezing rain peppers the oversized windows of room 1310 in Sterling Hall as nearly two hundred bundled-up students hustle in. To the soundtrack of Jenny Higgins’s playlist — Diana Ross, Queen Latifah, The Beatles — they flip open laptops and notebooks in preparation for Monday morning’s lecture. Higgins is a public-health scientist conducting NIH-funded research on women’s health disparities, and this is the famed and perpetually wait-listed forty-year-old Women and Their Bodies in Health and Disease course — GWS 103 for short. Today’s lecture topic is mental health.

“Pull out your iClickers, please. ‘Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental illness or attention issue, including ADHD?’ I’ll give you thirty-five seconds,” says Higgins, and the numbers on the overhead projection screen whirl and climb, flurrying into focus.

Anonymously, each student presses a button on her own small, white remote control. Thirty-six percent answer yes. When Higgins follows up asking if they’ve ever taken prescription medicine for a mental illness, 26 percent click that they have.

“So the overwhelming majority of you who’ve received a diagnosis are taking psychotropic medicine for this, and I want to very carefully honor the experiences of folks who have received these diagnoses,” says Higgins. “But I also want to push back just a little bit. I want us to think about, what does this represent for us culturally?”

During the next fifty minutes, Higgins runs through mental-health data and medical research, viewed through the lens of historical movements, social constructs, and feminist approaches. For example, in North America, she says, 60 to 75 percent of mental-health service clients are women. Women are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with depressive disorders. But what if we’re actually “pathologizing the legitimate emotional distress” that marginalized groups experience due to systemic inequities? Do postpartum women experience exaggerated rates of chemical imbalances? Does gender inequality in parenting also contribute to depression?

“To have better mental health,” Higgins concludes the lecture, referencing a quotation on the overhead projector, “women need to have more control and power over their lives.”

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