Gender, Mental Health, and Religion/Spirituality by Anna Beard and Catherine Cain

Mental Health

When it comes to mental health, research indicates that more women seek out services than men (Mackenzie, Gekoski, & Knox, 2006). Why? That’s an important question.

Gender role expectations heavily contribute to this issue. There is a societal expectation for men to be more independent and be more in control of their emotions in comparison to women. Compared to women, men seem to experience more shame when they have a mental health challenge (Pattyn, Verhaeghe, & Bracke, 2015). Practitioners tend to diagnose more women with depression than men even if an equal frequency of symptoms present (Pattyn et al., 2015).

Women and men have different responses to life related stress, contributing to their mental health state. Women tend to experience work related stress in the form of organizational stress which contributes to a less satisfying work environment for women (Pattyn et al., 2015). Additionally, women are especially affected by gender-based violence, poverty, and workplace compensation (World Health Organization, 2002).

Religion and Spirituality (RS)

Per the research, women tend to report being significantly more spiritual than men. Women tend to seek out spiritual practices more often as well, specifically yoga that highlights meditation, and seek out daily spiritual practices such as prayer, and quiet time. Women also tend to be more open about their relationship with God and attend church regularly (Robinson et al., 2019).

Women tend to rely on their faith more when it comes to stressful situations. When faced with difficult seasons or situations, women often lean on their faith to cope, rather than utilize external coping mechanisms or not addressing it altogether (Yadav et al, 2016). Yadav et al found that a lower level of stress in female students was directly related to a higher level of being open about their spiritualty, meaning that the female students surveyed were more willing to talk about their personal relationship with the Divine compared to men to relieve their stress.

Mental Health and RS

Most mental health clients report wanting to include their RS in their therapy (Oxhandler, Stanford, & Ellor, 2018). In a study evaluating the practice of intentionally including RS into therapy sessions, the clients seemed to be able to enjoy the process more, could tackle their problems deeper than without the mention of it, and could heal than before when given the space to talk about spiritual and religious struggles and hardships (Kim et al, 2019).

As social workers, it is important recognize the intersectionality of gender, mental health, and religion and to thoughtfully consider these areas when thinking about the needs of our clients.

Research indicates that RS is a prevalent coping mechanism for those who experience mental health challenges, especially women.

For example, Nguyen and Zuckerman conducted a study analyzing four different images of God: a relational God, God as a Provider, God as a Creator, and God as a ruler (2016). They found an increased belief in a relational God and God as a Provider coincides with a decrease in depressive symptoms in women (Nguyen & Zuckerman, 2016). However, the images of a ruling and creating God were related to increased depressive symptoms in women, but not in men; this view seems to affect women negatively because it contributes to their view that they will never be good enough to meet the perfect standards of an impersonal and controlling God (Nguyen & Zuckerman, 2016). Therefore, specific views of God’s role in people’s lives appear to contribute to how they view themselves, others, and the world.

However, research shows that RS has the potential to create or worsen mental health challenges (Richards et al., 2018).

In 2018, Richards and colleagues found that some women believe that their RS practices, such as fasting and RS-motivated dietary restrictions, intertwined with the development and continuation of their eating disorders. Additionally, women reported that bullying from members of their congregation encouraged their eating disorders (Richards et al., 2018). Further, gender roles in religious settings can impact women’s experiences or introspective views. For instance, men are more often in visible leadership roles with women serving in less visible capacities, having less input in decision-making, and fewer opportunities to share their experiences for others to learn from. This is relevant for a number of areas in women’s lives, but particularly their mental health, again recognizing women tend to be more open to discussing mental health concerns and perhaps, may not hear the value of this area of people’s lives if men are more often in RS-community leadership positions.

In conclusion, RS can positively or negatively contribute to the well-being of a person. Positive views include coping mechanism or a positive self-image (Nguyen & Zuckerman, 2016), as well as a beneficial role in religious communities. However, the opposite can be said about RS. As stated above, RS can increase likelihood and maintenance of eating disorders, in addition to depression and anxiety regarding their place in the world (Richards et al. 2018). Therefore, it is pertinent to consider the impact of RS when working with clients. In addition, we are ethically charged as social workers to consider each individual’s diverse experience when working with them. It is vital to recognize that RS is a component of diversity that must be addressed to best serve our clients, especially those who experience a mental health challenge.


Kim, E. E., Chen, E. C., & Brachfeld, C. (2019). Patients’ experience of spirituality and change in individual psychotherapy at a Christian counseling clinic: A grounded theory analysis. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 6(2), 110–123.

Mackenzie, C. S., Gekoski, W. L., & Knox, V. J. (2006). Age, gender, and the underutilization of mental health services: The influence of help-seeking attitudes. Aging & Mental Health, 10(6), 574–582.

Nguyen, T. T., & Zuckerman, M. (2016). The links of God images to women’s religiosity and coping with depression: A socialization explanation of gender difference in religiosity. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 8(4), 309–317.

Pattyn, E., Verhaeghe, M., & Bracke, P. (2015). The gender gap in mental health service use. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 50(7), 1089–1095.

Richards, P. S., Caoili, C. L., Crowton, S. A., Berrett, M. E., Hardman, R. K., Jackson, R. N., & Sanders, P. W. (2018). An exploration of the role of religion and spirituality in the treatment and recovery of patients with eating disorders. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 5(2), 88–103.

Robinson, O. C., Hanson, K., Hayward, G., & Lorimer, D. (2019). Age and cultural gender equality as moderators of the gender difference in the importance of religion and spirituality: Comparing

the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 58(1), 301–308.

World Health Organization. (2002). Gender and Mental Health. Retrieved September 23, 2019, from World Health Organization website:

Yadav, R., Khanna, A., & Singh, D. (2017). Exploration of relationship between stress and spirituality characteristics of male and female engineering students: A comprehensive study. Journal of Religion and Health, 56(2), 388–399.

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