Gender Disparities In Mental Health

Article | May 2021

Q&A: Gender Disparities in Mental Health

Two Cigna experts, Dr. Stuart Lustig and Susan Stith discuss women’s mental health and how we can all benefit from building our resilience skillset

There are many structural factors that impact gender disparities in mental health — education, literacy, poverty and gender roles — all have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. From Cigna’s own research, we know women, specifically mothers, are struggling with their mental and physical health.

To raise awareness for mental health and the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality this Mental Health Awareness Month, Susan Stith, vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion, civic affairs and the Cigna Foundation, and Dr. Stuart Lustig, senior medical director for behavioral health, spoke at Diversity Woman’s Self-Care, Health & Wellness virtual conference. Here are highlights from the conversation.

Why is building resilience such a critical skill today?

“It is a historic time we find ourselves in,” said Stith. “From the triple — and yes, I said triple threat — pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, and the widespread social unrest, to economic and political uncertainty, it is a time like no other. We need to create moments of personal resilience — so we can better weather the daily ups and downs, and keep a sense of meaning and belonging in our lives.”

“We are faced with a mental health crisis exaggerated by the pandemic — and Cigna’s recent focus on resilience helps us better understand what is at stake, and how to better help ourselves and others,” said Dr. Lustig. “Resilience, our ability to bounce back and quickly recover from challenges, is at risk for three out of five Americans. Our research found this translates to worse physical and mental health, higher stress and anxiety, lower feelings of self-esteem, and many other challenges adding to the burden at work or at home. This is disproportionally weighing on women’s mental health.”

Balancing work and home life has been challenging for many during the pandemic. What impact is this having on mental health?

“Women are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and the economic impacts of it. They have lost more jobs than men, probably because they work in sectors of the economy that have been more affected,” explained Dr. Lusting. “We think about some of the obvious industry sectors that have been impacted — hospitality and food for example. It’s also important to realize that women have historically been doing more of the unpaid work in the world, whether it’s taking care of the kids, taking care of the home or at this point helping kids complete their schoolwork. That has been drastically accentuated due to COVID-19.”

“The Cigna Resilience Index found that, when compared to parents nationwide, mothers are less likely to have high resilience, feel supported by friends, feel they belong in their community, or feel positive about the quality of their personal relationships. Additionally, our research found that working mothers are particularly struggling with these stressors — full-time working mothers are significantly less likely to have high resilience.”

How does remaining connected to others relate to self-care and resilience? 

“As we think about personal resilience, it’s important to help ourselves and others navigate towards the resources we need. One impactful finding from our research is the need to foster community,” said Dr. Lustig. “Those who find meaningful connections with others, surround themselves with a system of support at home or at work, and seek environments where they can feel 100% true to themselves and authentic, report higher levels of resilience.”

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What are some strategies for building and improving resilience and mental health?

“The good news is that resilience is not a static attribute. It functions like a muscle that can be strengthened and grown over time. There are simple ways to build the tools to enhance personal relationships, support each other and confront obstacles in pragmatic, productive and positive ways. People can visit Cignaresilience.com to identify their own level of resilience, and learn simple strategies to incorporate into their routine,” said Dr. Lustig.

More broadly, what is Cigna doing to address the mental health crisis?

Cigna is committed to helping build resilience in the communities we serve by continually advancing our services to support mental health needs,” said Dr. Lustig. “At the foundation of our work is providing the right care at the right time.”

For our customers, we expanded our behavioral care network threefold during COVID-19 to more than 59,000 virtual health care providers, making it the largest network in the country. We have specialized Centers of Excellence in substance use disorder and mental health, and a 24/7/365 crisis line staffed by behavioral health professionals to support customers.

We are also deeply committed to valuing and celebrating diversity and inclusion, and providing resources to support people and communities during these unprecedented times. Access Cigna.com/BetterTogether for strategies to maintain well-being, and to take action to build better understanding across differences.

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