Mental health is often an invisible burden we carry when we travel. Image by Flickr user Barta IV.

Mental health is a gendered issue.

There, I’ve said it.

In the United States, and much of the Western world, we’re used to thinking about things like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder as symptoms of chemical shifts in the brain or the result of a (male) service member undergoing one deployment too many. We tend either to view the subject with great empathy, believing that some of the most common mental health diagnoses strike without regard to gender, or with frustration because we think someone is wallowing in their self-created misery. Either way, we tend to believe that it can happen to anyone and is thus neutral.

That’s wrong.

Mental health diagnoses are the products of many things — brain chemistry, yes, but also social experiences, childhood, personality type, and substance use history. Some of these things are indeed neutral, like personality type, but others are gendered by their very nature.

Take social experience, for example. If you are a cisgender woman, you are given specific feedback from birth about what kind of a person you ought to be: Be a lady! Be quiet! Don’t be bossy! Advertisements compound this: Be sexy! But also pure! Be thin! Be heterosexual!

All of these messages compound each other as we grow up. By the time we’re adults, they have become an integral part of how we identify as women and how others treat us as women.

Then look at advertising, and the less-than-covert message that women are consistently available as sexual props, and you have a recipe for very traumatizing — or at least very upsetting — experiences comprising the social-experience component of your mental health.

If you don’t believe me, consider this: According to the World Health Organization, cisgendered women are more likely than cis men to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Part of this is because cis women are more often targeted for sexual and intimate partner violence and are more likely to be displaced by environmental disasters and armed conflicts. How’s that for social experience?

Now let’s turn our attention to travel, Wanderful’s favourite pasttime.

How is the gendered nature of mental health a travel issue?

  • Cis women in their 40s are now the average adventure traveler.
  • Cis women are responsible for approximately 64% of global travel.
  • Cis women make 80% of the travel decisions in the U.S.
  • Cis women are more likely to travel alone than cis men.

In other words, cis women are doing so much traveling that their disproportionate representation in diagnostic categories means that mental health is a travel issue by default.

How our brains work may seem scientific, but it’s often very culturally determined. Image from Davidmbusto on Wikimedia Commons.

It’s also a travel issue because different cultures define mental health in different ways, for better or worse. For example, in parts of both Louisiana and Thailand, bad spirits are considered responsible for depression and trauma. Additional challenges are presented by different cultural expectations for service-seeking. Depending on where you are, therapy, an exorcism, pharmacology, or keeping a stiff upper lip may be the best available option. If you’ve been following Melissa’s Wanderful Blogging Program column, and you should be, you’ll be aware of the difficulties the traveling cis woman can face when seeking mental health support.

The biggest problem of all, however, is that we travel bloggers rarely discuss our challenges with mental health. Both Melissa and Char have mentioned this recently as well. The end result is a large percentage of travelers who are left feeling isolated, alienated, and perhaps uncomfortably unique.

What can we do?

We can start by breaking the silence. We can all be forthcoming with the way our mental health intersects with our travel plans: the panic-attack-inducing scenarios, the flashback triggers, the desperate loneliness. We can talk about our experiences and connect with each other in a way that we may never have believed possible. We can do so not only to tell our own stories but to see ourselves reflected in the stories of others.

Want to learn and speak more about mental health? Join us on Twitter on August 29 at 12:30 PM Eastern for the inaugural travel blogger mental health chat! Come with your stories, and watch for #wanderfulbloggers.