How easy is it for women to experience a mental health breakdown?

Irish novelist Sinead Flynn says it’s easier than you think even without any pre-existing conditions. Flynn shares her personal experience with what the Irish call, the Black Dog, helping to lay the foundation for raging, mad women.

The Black Dog is a strange term for anxiety and depression but Flynn says it’s what helped her to create the character, Louise, in her 2014 fictional story Superwoman.

Flynn has suffered from depression and wants people to understand it could happen to anyone. She uses Louise to make this point by showing us how a violent altercation can cause a dramatic shift in anyone’s mental health.

Flynn believes women are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems, given our history of fighting against discrimination and the ongoing pressures, frustration, and extreme sadness we cope with in everyday life. These are amplified where there are pre-existing conditions and, if left untreated as you’ll see in both of today’s stories, horrifying events evolve.

As a quick aside, it’s worth noting that gender studies show there are differences in the type and prevalence of mental health disorders that men and women experience. They can differ in their patterns of occurrence and presenting symptoms. Some of these are outlined in research by the World Health Organization (WHO). Factors or “socio-economic determinants of mental health are affected by social position, status and treatment in society, and their susceptibility and exposure to specific mental health risks.”

Translation? We are a product of our life experiences and living conditions. WHO suggests women and children are most vulnerable when they suffer violence or ill conditions, as is more often the case compared to men. It’s certainly true as you’ll see with Sahar Khaddayari and Aileen Wuornos. Both women show us two extreme and uniquely complex situations, each reinforcing the truth about just how precarious mental health can be.

Sahar Khaddayari was a young 29-year-old university graduate in Computer Studies and English who loved to watch football. She lived in Iran and known in her Twitter profile as Blue Girl. On March 9th, 2019, Blue Girl was arrested for trying to enter Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. She wanted to watch her favorite teams even though she knew this was illegal; the 1979 Islamic Revolution forbade women from entering public stadiums.

Sahar was caught and served two days in jail with hardcore, violent criminals at the Shahr-e Rey prison (also known as Gharchak). After her release, she was ordered to appear in front of the Revolutionary Court in September to face charges for her “sinful act as well as appearing in public without a hijab and insulting officials.” When Sahar left the court that day, life took a horrible turn. Facing six months in jail, Sahar covered herself with fuel and lit herself on fire.

She died a week later from severe burns to 90% of her body.

Was Sahar protesting Iran’s discriminatory laws and become so angry she decided it was a cause worth dying for? Did Sahar suffer a traumatic event during her two-day incarceration or was she was already mentally unstable or a danger to herself before her arrest?

We will never know. It’s not uncommon for mental health issues to go unnoticed as many people suffer in miserable silence. There was no suicide note and her family was not allowed to speak to the media. Her sister said Sahar was seeking mental health treatment but rumors buzzed in all directions. Politicians, celebrities and football players demanded change for women.

A mental breakdown can include denial, panic attacks and a sense of hopelessness but for Aileen Wuornos, the situation went beyond anything imaginable. Aileen was an American serial killer. In a year-long shooting spree from 1989-90, Aileen shot and killed seven men at point-blank range. She was sentenced to death but claimed self-defense, saying every victim had tried or successfully raped her,

It’s clear when you begin to learn about Aileen’s experiences growing up and her living conditions at the time of her killing spree, there were many socio-economic factors that could have triggered her mental breakdown. Aileen’s mother was 14 when she married her 16-year-old father, and had Aileen just two years later. They divorced and Aileen never met her father who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and send to jail where he hung himself.

Making things worse, Aileen’s mother abandoned her and her siblings when Aileen was just 4 years old, and Aileen was engaging in sexual activity by the time she was 11. Aileen claims her maternal grandfather beat and sexually assaulted her as a child, and she turned to prostitution when she was 14 because there was no other way to support herself after she was thrown out of the house.

Drunk driving charges, armed robbery and a variety of assault and battery charges followed until Aileen was arrested for killing seven men. What happened to Aileen over her first 34 years of life was shocking. Her crimes were horrific. But what the court did in lieu of psychiatric reports that suggested she was mentally unstable and showed borderline personality disorder, was also egregious.

Obviously, Aileen was a sick woman. She showed early signs of behavioral problems that went undiagnosed and treated. She was angry about her life and the injustices she suffered. She felt utterly alone and repeated said she was mad at the media who had, to her, sensationalized her story in a movie and exploited her yet again.

There is a great deal of truth to what Aileen said. Despite the horrifying situation, as seen in the 2003 movie Monster, Aileen’s illness and lifelong suffering deserve compassion. Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her portrayal of Aileen in Monster, which was released one year after Aileen’s execution. A long list of documentaries and television shows also profited from Aileen’s suffering and sickness.

Obviously, we must do better as a society to understand and prevent the violence that comes from rage, disappointment or trauma. Friday, you’ll hear from Soraya Chemaly and the power she says comes from women’s rage. I’m not sure how I feel about that statement. It’s true, we need to address this emotion and decide how to react.

What power is good?

We know denial won’t help but can we really harness anger in a positive way that foster better communication and change outdated expectations for women?

Maybe we need to make a distinction between rage and anger. Aileen’s rage contributed to her personality disorder and dissociative emotional state. It was more than anger that led her to kill. Anger is a good place to start asking questions about ourselves and what it means to be angry. How we deal with it matters for finding healthier options for a happier, healthier you. See you Friday as we weigh in on the power that comes from rage.

Rose McInerney

Author Rose McInerney

Rose combines her love of all things artfully-designed to connect women to a shared community of learning and a richer, more fulfilled self. As a passionate storyteller, published writer, and international traveler, Rose believes women can build a better world through powerful storytelling.

More posts by Rose McInerney

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