The Problem with “Female Hysteria”
Updated: Jan 27, 2022
Historically, women who fell ill were rarely given proper medical treatment and instead, were diagnosed with ‘female hysteria,’ an alleged mental disorder that explained away any symptoms of sickness. But how does this impact modern medicine? Although “female hysteria” was dropped by the American Psychiatric Association as an official diagnosis in 1980, the ingrained belief that women are predisposed to emotional distress causes them to be commonly misdiagnosed with mental illnesses to this day. By dismissing women's symptoms as if they are ‘all in her head,’ women are more likely than men to be on the receiving end of medical mistakes and wait longer for appropriate medications.
[Photo Credit: Glamour]
Even in recent years, doctors and clinicians still have a tendency to label women’s physical symptoms as indicators of mental disorders without proper examination. In fact, studies in the 1990s suggested that as many as 30% to 50% of women diagnosed with depression were misdiagnosed. Although mental illnesses like depression or anxiety are themselves symptoms of other diseases, that often goes unrecognized in women. Additionally, extreme numbers of misdiagnosis in women translate to high rates of chronic conditions, resulting in the worsening of existing conditions and even fatalities in female patients. In the United States alone, diagnosis errors lead to anything from 40,000 to 80,000 deaths annually, most of which are women.
Other than the misconception of “female hysteria,” the lack of female subjects in medical research also leads to the misdiagnosis of women in mental disorders. Since women were excluded from most clinical trials prior to 1990, the majority of medical data considers men to be the average patient.
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This poses a major implication for women since biological differences can cause doctors to overlook physical symptoms in women and thus, misdiagnose women with “catch-all” terms like stress or anxiety. For example, women present more subtle symptoms when they experience heart attacks such as shortness of breath, nausea, and fatigue as compared to the expected image of one clutching one’s chest in extreme pain, a heart attack symptom that men have. This single difference brings about 50% more diagnostic errors for women than men following a heart attack. Hence, the absence of research done on women’s health prompts doctors to downplay or overlook women’s symptoms, increasing the amount of medical misdiagnoses in women.
[Photo Credit: Today]
Essentially, the common belief in ‘female hysteria' coupled with the lack of medical research on women’s health results in the misdiagnosis of women in mental health illnesses. It must also be noted that the faults in the past and present medical field have severely undermined women’s health. Thankfully, this issue has gathered awareness through articles much like this one. Hence, today’s doctors and researchers have taken initiatives to decrease diagnostic errors, such as including higher numbers of female subjects in medical studies, ultimately protecting women’s health.
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 Fahmy, Asmae. “Women With Chronic COVID-19 Struggle To Be Heard By Doctors.” Verywell Health, 23 Aug. 2020, www.verywellhealth.com/female-covid-19-long-haulers-doctors-dismiss-symptoms-5075224.
 Lines , Lisa M. “The Myth of Female Hysteria and Health Disparities among Women.” RTI International , 9 May 2018, www.rti.org/insights/myth-female-hysteria-and-health-disparities-among-women.
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 Tosello, Jovanna. “It's Not All in Our Heads: It's Not All in Our Heads Women Speak out about How Doctors Dismissed Their Pain, Downplayed Their Symptoms or Simply Sent Them to a Psychiatrist.” TODAY, 2021, www.today.com/health/women-speak-out-about-feeling-dismissed-doctors-t153701.