Women’s mental health discussed at Community Conversations event


Natalie Wei

At last Tuesday’s Community Conversations event, panelists discussed the disproportionate impacts the pandemic has had on women’s mental health.

Content warning: mentions of suicide

The pandemic has caused disproportionately large mental health effects for women, according to panelists at last Tuesday’s event focusing on women’s mental health at a local level. 

Part of a larger Gender Disparities in the Pandemic series, the  webinar was co-hosted by the Los Altos Women’s Caucus and the Los Altos Mountain View Community Foundation and is part of the long-running Community Conversations program, which aims to provide opportunities to hear about local issues from experts. 

During the event, Dr. Nirmaljit Dhami shared observations from her work at El Camino Health, including an increase in depression, substance abuse, vaping, reported domestic abuse and violence, PTSD and suicidal thoughts and attempts in patients. She also cited findings from a 2021 study which concluded that women made up about two-thirds of pandemic-related additional cases of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders globally. Both internal and external forces that push women to minimize their symptoms could be responsible for the increased prevalence of mental health issues.

“There are just too many expectations of women,” Dhami said. “Our culture wants us to be in this perfectionistic role, to have it all together and take care of everything and do everything. I think the very significant generational pressures just make it really hard for women to, themselves, recognize their symptoms.”

Riley Simonsen, a senior at Saint Francis and Community Health Awareness Council Teen Advisory Board member, pointed to similar dynamics at the high school level as students have been encouraged to return to pre-pandemic normalcy this year.

“What they [counselors at St. Francis and CHAC] have told me and what I have been seeing personally is that young women in particular have had increased pressure to return to the normal,” Riley said. “And a lot of this normal is the pressure to be put together.”

While the Mountain View–Los Altos School District does not collect gender-specific data on mental health, Wellness Coordinator William Blair acknowledged the increasing rates of depression and anxiety and confirmed that depression and anxiety, which are more prevalent in women, are the most commonly presenting issues within MVLA.

From Riley’s perspective, this has manifested in disproportionately large reactions to relatively small stressors, as well as body image issues. Riley explained how the developmental and weight changes students experienced during quarantine, in conjunction with unrealistic body standards reinforced by increased social media use, has led to discomfort for some students. 

“Coming back to school and looking different, feeling different about themselves has been very stressful and anxiety-inducing for girls,” Riley said.

The panelists also discussed ways to provide mental health support and resources to women. At the high school level, Riley believes that readjusting what is expected of students post-quarantine socially, extracurricularly and academically could help alleviate some of their stress. 

“We need to try to encourage teens to not go back to the old norm, but focus on whatever their new norm might be,” Riley said.

Some specific resources available to students within the district include the opportunity to speak to CHAC clinicians, and the district is currently working on forming an anxiety-based support group in partnership with CHAC, according to Blair.

Dr. Sandra Escobar, the clinical director at Ravenswood Family Health Services, emphasized the importance of telehealth appointments and creative solutions, like service providers assisting out-of-state patients in underserved communities, to increase access to mental health resources. She also advocated for self-care to be framed as a necessity, as opposed to a luxury, and Dhami pointed out the importance of non-stigmatizing conversations around mental health and trauma-informed care. 

While Escobar acknowledges the difficult challenges facing the community, she believes that there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic that can help patients long after.

“I wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t have hope,” Escobar said.