Mother's Little Helper

Oct 15, 2012
Express Scripts research shows that 25% of women use at least one mental health medication as compared to 15% of men. What explains the higher use among women?
  • Mental/Neurological Disorders
  • Adults
  • Female

The Rolling Stones song “Mother’s Little Helper” immortalized a phrase that satirically referred to the widespread use of the anti-anxiety drug valium by housewives in the 1960s. A 2004 episode of “Desperate Housewives” modernized the term to describe the abuse of ADHD medications by exhausted mothers looking for an energy boost. At Express Scripts, we’ve seen pop culture expand the meaning to other psychotropic drugs such as sleeping pills and antidepressants.

“Mother’s Little Helper” is an unfortunate term because it trivializes mental health conditions and their treatments and may actually encourage inappropriate use of these powerful medications. However, it does accurately point to the reality that more women use these drugs than men.

In our "America's State of Mind" report, Express Scripts research shows that in 2010, 25% of women used at least one mental health medication as compared to 15% of men. Our study also found that one-in-five women were taking an antidepressant while the number of men was half that. Additionally 11% of women ages 45 to 64 were on an anti-anxiety medication, nearly twice the rate of their male counterparts. Women also have been closing the ADHD gender gap; while in childhood, more boys use them than girls, women have now overtaken the number of men prescribed these drugs. 

Percent of population using mental health medications

So why do women take these drugs at far higher rates than men? A number of factors can be contributing to this phenomenon:

Physiological factors: Hormonal changes can have a significant impact on mood, so times of extreme hormone fluctuations such as post-partum and menopause can trigger or exacerbate depression and anxiety.

Sociological reasons: Women may experience greater levels of stress having to do with their role as caretaker of their family.

Chief Medical Officer of the home: Women are in more frequent contact with medical practitioners, providing more opportunities for discussing their own medical issues with physicians.  

Stigma: There is less stigma tied to mental health disorders than there once was, making it more likely to seek out help. This is particularly true for women whose attention deficit disorder may have gone undiagnosed in childhood because women generally do not display the hyperactivity component.   

For women who need these treatments, having access and using these medications appropriately is good. But understandably, the large number of women on psychotropic drugs has raised eyebrows and concerns about overprescribing. Unfortunately, there is no panacea to treating psychological disorders. At Express Scripts, we believe that behavioral or psychological counseling should always be considered as a potential first line of treatment before medications are prescribed. Often for those suffering from depression, anxiety and attention disorders, a combination of counseling and medication produces the best outcomes.

comments powered by Disqus