Last time, I talked about the problem with holding up celebrity lifestyle habits as reasonable health advice. A popular young American actress had reportedly suggested that genital yeast infection and other genital conditions can be cured by exposing vaginas to sunlight. She shared this information during an interview, saying she read this advice in an article by “an herbalist.” The media jovially shared this story, especially when a writer decided to try it out and recommend the practice, not bothering to investigate whether the health claim was true. This is my second in-depth case study showing why it’s especially damaging to present celebrity ideas about women’s health without consideration to the social impact.
Today let’s look at why the so-called “Rushing Woman’s Syndrome” is scientifically invalid. This is a marketing term coined by a self-described “holistic nutrition specialist” who argues that women who feel emotionally overwhelmed and who show other signs of mental illness are abnormal. She argues their emotional issues boil down to a busy lifestyle and hormone imbalance. A celebrity athlete and parts of the Australian media ran with this term, giving the impression that women’s emotions need “biochemical” intervention (at the cost of $600 a pop). This narrative grossly penalises women’s expression of their emotional wellbeing and serves only to stigmatise both women as “moody bitches” (quote used by celebrity Lisa Curry) and it further stigmatises mental illness.
Vulnerable women who are suffering depression or who may not understand their bodies do not need to be exposed to pseudoscience. The individual musings of celebrities can be ignored at the individual level. At the social level, however, the media have cultural authority and a responsibility to inform readers about health issues. This is done by drawing on expert advice, not egging on damaging celebrity endorsements.
Rushing Woman’s Syndrome
In June, legendary Australian Olympic champion, Lisa Curry, gave an interview with A Current Affair claiming that she was suffering from “Rushing Women’s Syndrome” (RWS). This term was attributed to self-fashioned “holistic nutrition specialist,” Dr Libby Weaver (who markets herself “Dr Libby”). In her interview, Curry blames the breakdown of her marriage on this condition. What she describes, however, are symptoms of mental illness (specifically depression). The language she uses to describe her emotional state is incredibly damaging, and mirrors the stigma usually placed on mental illness.
To him [Curry’s ex-husband] I was just being an absolute bitch, a cow, angry and irritable for no reason. He actually didn’t do anything wrong. But I just couldn’t control it… I was in a pretty deep hole at some point… I had days where I felt completely out of control… I was angry, irritable, moody, cry for no reason, wanted to kill the world. The Rushing Woman’s Syndrome is absolutely me… I didn’t want to seem like I was the only cow on earth, but it felt like that to me.
A Current Affair calls Rushing Woman’s Syndrome a “misdiagnosed condition” and that “science says it’s very real.” They show a woman mixing bottles to emphasise the word “science” (she’s later introduced as an “herbalist”). Later Curry is shown mixing her personal brand of protein shakes, while other women are seen preparing fruit in a large kitchen. The reporter adds that RWS is “bringing their [women’s] hormones into balance.” Weaver is interviewed throughout the segment. She describes her clients using scientific terms but without any in-depth explanation of what she actually does. She uses words like biochemicals and progesterone. She also uses loaded language to describe her clients in a way that we would not expect of an health professional:
They feel like they’re going crazy. They feel like it’s a weakness… Nine out of ten women who walk through the doors of my practice are affected by it… People are really ready for a new way of looking at health, from that, I think, biochemical understanding.
Weaver says that in her 16 years experience of treating women “one on one” only six” of an unspecified sample,
have had the right level of progesterone. Six in 16 years! They are women who warm up with coffee in the mornings and cool down with alcohol in the evenings. They are forever feeling like they have to meet everybody else’s needs… They feel intensely sad.
In these two quotes, Weaver cites vague statistics about her successful treatment: nine out of ten of how many women have so-called RWS? This treatment has been verified by how many other accredited health practitioners? The ratio of success has been evaluated and deemed valid by how many independent specialists? Six women of how many had the “right level of progesterone”? What is progesterone and what the “right level”? And what does it have to do with the amorphous mix of symptoms the term RWS supposedly covers? Sure, numbers and hormones sound science-y but Weaver’s RWS methodology has not appeared in peer reviewed research.
Progesterone is a hormone produced in the menstrual cycle. It can affect mood and depression in a minority of women (3%-5%) and in severe cases of acute or chronic mental illness like schizophrenia. So unless Weaver’s horde of clients are the minority of Australian women suffering from extreme progesterone disorders and schizophrenia, then we might expect them to also be in the care of medical professionals who specialise in mental health. But as we will see, after public critique, Weaver says that she does not treat mental illness.
Back to the ACA report. The journalist encourages viewers to “Look around you: man or woman, chances are you’ll know someone who has the sort of symptoms Dr Libby is describing.” Sure, if you mean mental illness. That’s because actual scientific research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics finds that almost half of all Australians aged 16-85 years have experienced some form of mental illness at some stage in their lives. Twenty percent of Aussies report experiencing a mental illness in the previous year. One in four young people experience depression and it’s higher for young women (one third of those aged 16 to 24 years) and additionally, multiple mental health issues exist for LGBTQI youth.
Curry said she went to the doctor who suggested anti-depressants. Curry says, “I’m not depressed. I know I’m not depresed. If you’re depressed, you’re depressed every day.” I’ve emphasised the last part because this is not necessarily the case. Experiences of depression vary and some days are better than others. Furthermore, anti-depressants are not the only way to manage depression, nor do they suit everyone. Following heart surgery (so following a second major life disruption after divorce), Curry decided to self-diagnose herself with the non-medical theory of RWS and she set out to launch her own health shakes, and to go on a national tour promoting her lifestyle advice.
Stacy Roberts, a “herbalist and naturopath” is then shown on ACA talking about hormonal imbalance. She claims to have helped couples conceive “more than 7,000 babies,” again with no credible data presented. Problematically, she says: “I think that it’s become such a big problem that most people think that the things that we’re feeling are normal – and they’re not normal.“ She ends by saying that men can also suffer from a form of male menopause. Men’s hormone and testosterone change over time, but this transition is not directly comparable to menopause.
What is normal?
Let’s unpack Roberts’ comment: what is “normal“? While depression is a painful experience that requires support, treatment and intervention, labelling it as “not normal” doesn’t really help. Normal implies a value judgement about the way things are or meant to be. If we we look at this statistically what is outside the norm may be defined through average or recurring and everyday experiences. Illnesses experienced by a minority of people still matter even if they are not common, however, with around half of us suffering from mental illness at some stage we can see this as a type of norm. Mental illness is part of the human condition. Otherwise it might be understood as a normal reaction to an abnormal situation that has depleted an individual’s resilience to cope with their emotions or the world around them. Mental illness therefore requires empathy and understanding, not negative connotations about women being lesser because they can’t cope. The damage by this ACA piece is further deepened when Curry uses Rushing Woman’s Syndrome as a way to classify all women as “bitches” because of our emotions and busy lifestyles.
On behalf of me and all the women in the world, I want to say sorry to the guys. Because they cop it. Men cop it! …So sorry guys. But I’m glad there’s a name for it now, and I’m glad we’ve got a solution.
So here lies the fundamental problem. If Curry has found a way to manage her health through diet, lifestyle and a catchy phrase, that’s terrific. The problem is using “Rushing Woman’s Syndrome” to dismiss the emotional problems and experiences of women. We are told that “80% of women” suffer from RWS, or so says one of the “patients” featured in the ACA report.
A Current Affair presents this discussion as science. “Experts” are shown, all of whom work in fringe areas of medicine that are yet to be validated by science as a course of treatment for mental illness. I’ve previously noted that non-Western alternatives to medicine deserve attention. Herbal treatments and shakes may have helped the people featured in the ACA segment, but it’s worth noting that most vitamins and supplements are not necessary if people are eating right and if their physical and emotional wellbeing is being adequately supported. Diet is only one element of healthy life, and mental health has other dimensions that require support. One way to see the vitamin industry is as snake oil, given that research predominantly shows vitamin supplements have little to no effect on health. An alternative framework that’s more helpful is the science of placebos. Research suggests that people with depression who use a combination of alternative and Western medicines feel better positioned to manage their wellbeing. As I’ve written elsewhere, the subjective experience of illness is not to be dismissed.
Having said this, Rushing Woman’s Syndrome may be framed in the language of empowerment, but as we see in Curry, Weaver and Roberts’ narratives, RWS positions the everyday lives and emotions of women as a problem. Women’s moods are not normal. They require intervention and punishment. Women have to have their hormones corrected by potions and shakes, but in order to be healed they need to accept that they are failing their partners and children. I was quoted in News.com.au saying that RWS is not scientifically valid. Additionally, I noted on Twitter that celebrity culture should not be used to dispense health advice.
In my tweets, I linked to Weaver’s website to demonstrate that the quiz Weaver uses to provide an initial self-diagnosis of this “syndrome” is simply a collection of statements that any person might identify with; here’s a general sample, with some direct quotes:
- Do you love coffee and need a “daily fix”?
- Do you feel “busy,” “stressed,” “tired,” “irritable or as I prefer to say, gritty,” or feel bothered that you can’t “cross off” items on your “to-do list,” or like there’s not “enough hours in the day”?
- Do you have painful periods, PMS or are you going through menopause? (So most cis-women past puberty, then.)
- Do you crave sugar mid-afternoon?
Some of the questions may be seen to target symptoms of anxiety and depression, which are medical conditions that cannot be measured through an online quiz confusing matters with diet and feelings of “busy-ness,” These elements should not be treated by a pseudoscience approach.
- Do you feel a sense of panic and feel your heart racing even when you’re sitting still?
- Do you have consistent trouble relaxing without wine?
- Do you have trouble sleeping?
- Do you “overreact easily” without feeling like you can express how you really feel?
- Do you “laugh less than you used to”?
- Do you experience ongoing “mental fuzziness”?
- Do you feel a recurring sense of “guilt” for not being “a good enough partner/ wife/ mother/ friend?”
Other questions are about specific medical conditions (loss of appetite; overeating; trouble breathing); others that are more general physical conditions (feeling “bloated”) or which present a collection of symptoms (“irritable bowel syndrome”). Once you submit your answers and contact details, you may be eligible for a consultation, which The Australian reports costs $600 per session. Weaver has promoted her approach in a book of the same name.
Various experts criticised the “Rushing Woman’s Syndrome” after Curry’s tearful admission. The issue with calling it a “syndrome” is that it makes it sound official. It isn’t. The term “syndrome” is used in psychology and medicine to denote a collection of signs and symptoms. In both cases, however, practitioners cannot invent a syndrome without submitting their research for peer review. In psychology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders governs the classification of mental illnesses. It is not without controversy, and it is constantly evolving as new insights and research shift scientific consensus. It is currently in its 5th edition. Rushing Women’s Syndrome is not in there because it is not a valid diagnosis.
Psychologist Dr Janine Clarke of the mental health organisation, the Black Dog Institute, was quoted in The Australian: “There’s no such diagnosis… There are vulnerable people who are willing to pay almost anything for an answer.” In the Sydney Morning Herald, Weaver says she has not met Curry and would not comment on her specific condition. She also states that her invention of Rushing Woman’s Syndrome is informed by scientific research (“biochemicals”), and yet is not about mental health:
I am not talking about depression, I am not talking about anxiety, I am not talking about those medical conditions. I am talking about women feeling like they have too much to do, day after day, year after year. Many women weren’t aware that when there is a perception of pressure it is driving a cascade of biochemical changes. I used Rushing Women’s Syndrome as a phrase to help educate people so they can begin a journey to better health.
What is the problem here? The issue is that as soon as an everyday experience, such as feeling busy, is turned into a (pseudo) medical problem, individuals who don’t know better latch onto these catch-phrases. As two experts tell the SMH, the Rushing Woman’s Syndrome is
a marketing term, not a medical term. It’s rolling into one a set of non-specific symptoms … and giving simplistic answers. – General practitioner Ginni Mansberg
It’s a vague, nebulous term. What does it mean? – John Eden, associate professor of reproductive endocrinology at the University of NSW.
Sociology of Women’s Health
On the outset these two examples I’ve covered on vaginal health and ‘rushing woman syndrome’ are the fabrication of celebrity health advice. These examples are set in two different contexts about disparate issues (mental health in Australia and sexual health in the USA). Yet the common threads are:
- Celebrities share health ideas that work for them as privileged individuals, citing “experts” who are not recognised by valid scientific evidence.
- The media repeat this information without credible medical corroboration or informed context.
Even entertainment “news” can affect how the public understands,or misinterprets, women’s health.
Curry uses Rushing Woman’s Syndrome to castigate herself for being a “bitch.” She is a self-confessed “bad” wife, who was unable to deal with her unhappiness. Curry uses the “syndrome” to suggest that because she failed to control her moods, she is a failed woman. She also says that RWS explains why women’s moods are such a drain on men. Women’s experiences are diverse, but their emotional issues should not be used as an excuse to punish femininity. Men also go through ups and downs, but society does not encourage them to express their feelings in the same ways as women.
Linking emotional trouble to failure is specifically punitive for women, who already have a double burden: women are still largely expected to cope with the primary responsibility of domestic labour, on top of penalties in paid work, as well as managing the well-being of others. Looking after one’s own emotional wellbeing in relation to other people’s feelings is known as “emotion work.” Rushing Woman’s Syndrome, when promoted by celebrities and segments of the media, adds to the collective pressures and blame on women. As sociologist Arlie Hochschild has noted, women’s emotion already carries heavy stigma.
- Anxiety and Depression Checklist – Beyond Blue
- How to report on mental illness – SANE Australiahttp://www.lgbthealth.org.au/mental-health
- Professor Helen Christensen discusses The Black Dog Institute’s online services for anxiety, depression and stress.
Earlier versions of this post were published in parts on Twitter and Google+.