Radical Empathy: How New Guidelines for Mental Health Care Affect *All* Women

Photo: Getty Images/asiseeit
The language we use to talk about women's mental health is getting a makeover. Today, the American Psychological Association (APA) released new psychological recommendations for mental health practitioners to use for better communication with women and girls. The guidelines, last updated in 2007, focus on external factors that dictate the mental well-being of women in the U.S., including sexual violence, discrimination, devaluation, and oppression.

"During recent decades, girls and women of diverse ethnicities and races, abilities, social classes, sexual orientations, gender identities, and life experiences have encountered dramatic and complex changes in education, work, reproductive and caregiving roles, and personal relationships," writes the APA. We've come along way, certainly, but the new guidelines seek to fill in some of the ground not yet covered in the mental health sphere of individuals who identify as women.

Specifically, the APA now asks mental health practitioners to highlight the strength and resilience of every women who walks into their offices. "Women suffering from psychological problems need treatment, but that has to be in a more affirmative, more empowering way, and it has to be effective," Lillian Comas-Diaz, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who helped revise the guidelines, told Mashable.

"Women suffering from psychological problems need treatment, but that has to be in a more affirmative, more empowering way, and it has to be effective."

To accomplish this more holistic, empathetic understanding of each person who seeks mental health counsel, the document outlines that the nuances of women's experiences must be considered. For example, United Nations data show that 70 percent of women in the U.S. experience some form of violence in the course of their lives. Sexual violence, specifically, has been linked to depression, anxiety, substance, and eating disorders, among other mental health issues.

How women are presented in media is yet another far-reaching and ubiquitous strain on mental health that rarely gets recognized in a clinical setting. These stereotypical presentations of women can prey upon self-image and self-esteem, and have been know to negatively affect everything from general well-being to sexual development, according to the APA. The guidelines also call attention to the populations that mental health research has overlooked. There's a scarcity of data on the adjustment and mental states of transgender women, even though we know that transgender and gender non-conforming individuals have a significantly higher risk for suicide (41 percent, verses 1.6 percent in the general population).

"The purpose of these guidelines is to assist psychologists in the provision of gender-sensitive, culturally competent, and developmentally appropriate psychological practice with girls and women across the lifespan from all social classes, ethnic and racial groups, sexual orientations, abilities and disabilities, and other diversity statuses in the U.S. and globally," writes the APA. While there's no way to ensure enforcement or consistent application of the new guidelines, the call for radical empathy is loud and clear.

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