One out of every four psychologists has suicidal feelings at times, according to one survey, and as many as one in 16 may have attempted suicide.
- In a survey of female psychologists, 76% of the sample experienced some form of depression, with the most frequent diagnosis being dysthymia
- A study of female mental health professionals revealed respondents to have experienced significant distress within the past three years.
- Research has shown that female therapists commit suicide at higher rates than the general population.
( The above data is from an article by Doug Girard, Psy.D. How many clinical psychologists suffer from mental illness? Updated Aug 7, 2014 · Updated by Anita Sanz, clinical psychologist
The reality of the numbers seems surprising given the large number of women with this degree (approximately 71 percent as of 2010) and their enthusiasm and investment in the work and in the profession.
It is also fairly widespread belief that a psychology degree is an optimal choice for a woman because of the possibility of being in independent practice with creative potential, earning a good amount of money and structuring one’s own hours to meet the needs of family and other responsibilities. Even Forbes steps in to assert that “The 25 Best-Paying Jobs For Women Right Now include psychologists.”
Some of the reasons for the depression and suicidal thoughts are neatly summarized in several articles and they range from treating individuals with negative and sometimes dangerous behaviors, isolation in private practice and dealing with managed care and paperwork requirements. But there is much more that pertains to women.
The Wounded Healer
There is the opinion that psychologists and therapists make use of their own mental health as a foundation for their work. Commonly known as the ‘wounded healer,’ this notion states, “therapists are both motivated to become healers and strengthened in their capacity to empathize with others by painful life experiences.”
“I think people who are drawn towards professions such as psychology, usually their interest comes from something very personal,” says Russell Federman, Ph.D., the director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “It’s not because they’ve had a simple, gilded, wonderfully supported life.”
This underlying motivation, if it is a search for meaning and for answers, is often a difficult and emotionally turbulent one for any individual. It is possible that some people who enter the psychology field are searchers but there are more challenges that face the female psychology student and professional.
More traditional and destructive reasons are barriers for women from the onset of their journey through their attempts to climb the professional ladder. These are our social values as they relate to gender roles and sexism/discrimination.
In our paternalistic society and others, value is placed on women who fill roles as wives, housekeepers, bearers of children and caretakers. The professional fields that are often deemed to be suitable for females are teaching, nursing and caretaking. Many young women have internalized these values and experience very negative feelings and feedback when they opt out of traditional roles.
This dilemma is an on going struggle as they age into their late 30’s given the science that informs us that the ovum age along with the woman and she becomes less fertile as she grows older. Women do combine full-time work with child rearing and marriage again having to cope with divided responsibilities, divided priorities and negative feedback.
The other, mostly hidden reason is reported by professional women who seek funding for research, who seek academic positions in universities or who work in the private sector. Women professionals state that there is sexism in these domains that restricts their upward mobility in favor of male practitioners. This factor is daunting and depressing but is part of the reality for professional women in our society.
The obstacles are clearly presented in an article by two female psychologists. They state that female early career psychologists face unique challenges during the course of their occupational development. Even though women earn the majority of psychology Ph.D.s, (approximately 71 percent as of 2006), women are continually underrepresented in academia and face a distinctive set of issues.
There is no question that representation of women with psychology Ph.D.s in academia and other occupations have vastly improved, however as of 2006, women still only held 46.2 percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty spots, and 33.4 percent of full professorships. Approximately only 25 percent of women decide to go into academic based careers, down from the 40 percent who state they wish to do so at the beginning of graduate school.
One of the biggest factors in this decision is the desire to start a family.
Women with families have significantly lower odds of gaining tenure and married women with young children have about a 35 percent less chance of getting tenure than a married man with young children and 33 percent lower odds of becoming tenured than a single woman. Unfortunately, academia may be unknowingly perpetuating a system where talented women leave early in their career because of feeling that career must come before family.
Family leave benefits vary widely from university to university; some universities can provide six weeks or more of leave, while others provide leave dependent on the amount of full-time hours an individual has recorded, often leaving graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and beginning faculty with few leave options when having children and coping with parenting responsibilities.
No doubt, these early experiences color a woman’s expectations of the field and how she will continue to be treated, as well as her expectations for continued success. It is particularly ironic as many women are choosing to have families in graduate school and during postdoctoral training because of heightened flexibility and biological and social time points.
In another article, the point is made that women psychologists have effectively been engaged in challenging the sexist attitude in their field. Notable early contributions have been made by Naomi Weisstein in her 1968 article, “Psychology constructs the female, or the fantasy life of the male psychologis” and Carolyn Wood Sherif in 1975 with “Bias in psychology.” Both were reprinted in Janis Bohan’s (1992) book, “Seldom Seen, Rarely Heard: Women’s Place in Psychology.”
The Path Forward
The question remains: How can this information be of use to women who are entering or plan to enter the profession of psychology?
Being aware of the burdens and challenges that lie ahead on the pathway to the Ph.D. and beyond is one of the important uses of this data. Establishing and joining support groups and advocacy groups is a dynamic way to empower oneself and others. Another recommendation would be for those who seek tenure to evaluate each university’s tenured positions to find the ratio of women to men on the faculty. In a “female friendly” university environment, the barriers to advancing one’s career may be identified early in the process.
Finally taking care of oneself emotionally and physically is the foundation for any kind of success in a career. Having compassionate, supportive friends and family who listen and who encourage is fundamental in this process.
Being marginalized is a damaging process and the stain of stigma is especially difficult when one self-stigmatizes. With the high expectations and admirable goals that women (and men) have when they pursue a professional career, the shock of being discounted at any point is frightening to anticipate. And yet we must move ahead with the will and the enthusiasm that will enable us to surmount many obstacles and have satisfying careers.