Health Care

Florida women are physically healthier but data on mental health causes concern

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Death rates for heart disease and lung cancer have dipped among Florida women, but suicide rates and measurements of poor mental health have gone up, according to a report released Tuesday on health disparities among women in the state.

The report, released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, found the suicide rate among Florida women rose during a 14-year period to a level above the national average, and that experiences of poor mental health have also become more prevalent among women.

It was “one of the most troubling findings in the report,” said report co-author Julie Anderson.

The institute, which is supported by a swath of non-profit and women's organizations, has published a national report on the status of women since 1996 and previously released a similar comprehensive report on Florida in 2004. The most recent report, commissioned by the Florida Women’s Funding Alliance, an arm of the Florida Philanthropic Network, is the last in a series on social and economic conditions for women in the state.

In the report, the researchers used a “health and well-being” index drawn from nine differently weighted indicators — including death rates and incidents of chronic diseases to mental health metrics — to grade the status of women’s health in the Sunshine State. Compared to the report released in 2004, Florida’s grade rose from a D+ to a C-, and went from 38th in the nation to 35th.

Many of the indicators related to chronic disease improved, though rates varied based on race and socioeconomic status: Death rates from lung and breast cancer, as well as heart disease, went down overall from 2001 to 2015. Rates of AIDS diagnosis also declined, from 21 per 100,000 women to 19.4 in the same time period, though they remain more than twice the national rate of 7.6 per 100,000.

Florida women have also seen an increase, mirrored nationally, in reported cases of chlamydia. Because the disease often causes no symptoms, the uptick in diagnosis could indicate wider testing for the disease and could improve treatment, the report suggested.

But the percentage of adult Florida women who received diagnoses of diabetes rose, and multiple measures of women’s mental health declined. According to the report, suicide rates rose from 5.5 per 100,000 women of all ages in 2001 to 6.5 per 100,000 women in 2015, compared to a national average of 5.8 for the same population.

The report also used data on how many days per month women in Florida experienced poor mental health, which increased from 3.7 days per month in 2000 to 4.5 days in 2015.

That metric, which asked women to self-report how often their mental health was not good, was meant to “reflect a true increase in the number of days” affected, rather than asking about when they sought treatment, Anderson said. The latter, she said, could be skewed by other factors like economic status and access to healthcare: “It’s not about prevalence, it’s about diagnosis.”

Women additionally reported that their activities were, on average, limited by their physical or mental health for about 5.3 days in the preceding month, compared to the national 4.8-day average.

Among the reasons for the decline in mental health measures may have been the recession, said Paula Liang, one of the co-chairs of the alliance that commissioned the report.

“The recession from 2007 through 2011 was incredibly destabilizing for women who were on the margins — it destabilized their mental health,” she suggested. She also cited low rankings for Florida’s mental health spending per capita: “We just don’t fund the services that are necessary to move that number.”

Because Florida administers Medicaid funding for mental health differently from other states, some have criticized per capita rankings that place the state last. Liang said Florida often “tag teams” with Idaho for last-place and called for increased funding for mental health resources.

The report also collected data on women with disabilities or those providing care to people with disabilities and incidents of violence against women. It issued several recommendations, from pushing for paid family medical leave to expanding access to health insurance coverage. Nearly 20 percent of Americans who fall into the insurance gap — with incomes between Medicaid eligibility and the federal poverty level — live in Florida, Anderson said.

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