It’s Time to Think of Women: Mental Health Services for First-Episode Psychosis

Psychiatric TimesVol 39, Issue 7

It is time for gender-sensitive first-episode psychosis services.


Mary Long/AdobeStock


As the World Health Organization reminds us,1 gender is a critical determinant of health, including mental health. Psychosis affects 3 in 100 individuals worldwide and typically develops around age 21 years.2 It includes diagnoses such as those of the schizophrenia spectrum and affective disorders. Early intervention services hold the promise of changing the trajectory of psychosis by providing specialized, coordinated care to individuals experiencing their first episode of psychosis (FEP).3 Evidence shows that FEP services can improve short-term and long-term outcomes for the individual4,5 (eg, employment) and for their community6 (eg, reduced disruptive public behavior, legal charges). What remains unknown, and maybe overlooked, is that women experiencing FEP might encounter gender-based disparities in accessing and receiving specialized care.7

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Crucial questions arise: Are men and women equal when it comes to accessing mental health care for FEP? Do men and women with psychosis have the same care needs?8,9 How can we tailor FEP services to accommodate women’s needs?

Gender differences regarding the clinical characteristics of the psychosis spectrum have been extensively described8,10: Men and women differ in incidence and age at onset,11 in symptoms at care presentation, and in course of illness. Compared with men, women also carry different risk factors for psychosis,12 including hormonal and psychosocial influence.

Several factors have been identified that could affect access to and quality of care received by women with FEP. Potential suggestions for overcoming clinical and structural challenges also will be provided.

Factors Affecting Access to Care for Women With FEP

Age at onset: Many FEP programs accept only individuals aged 15 to 35 years, which is consistent with the design of a service providing specific psychosocial interventions to address a set of needs for education and employment targeted to younger individuals. However, this age range might exclude women who have their first episodes later in life. The multinational EU-GEI study including 2774 individuals with FEP reported not only that women were older at first contact with FEP services (age 34 years vs 28 years for men) but also that they had a second peak of new onset of psychosis in their 50s (post menopause).13

In the United Kingdom, a solid attempt has been made to expand access to specialized FEP services to individuals up to age 65 years. A preliminary report suggested that, compared with individuals younger than 35, a higher proportion of referrals and accepted patients over 35 were female, providing further evidence of possible unmet care needs in women over 35 with FEP.14 The challenge exists in how to design FEP services for this older age group with higher care complexity, such as systematic involvement of family social care services and greater economic needs.

Clinical presentation of psychosis and pathways to care: These also differ by gender.15 Women tend to present with prevalent mood symptoms associated with psychosis instead of the classic bizarre behavior and thoughts; therefore, they are more likely to receive a diagnosis of affective psychosis (which is often a criterion for exclusion from FEP programs). Moreover, women are less likely to manifest psychosis through aggressive and disorganized/dangerous behaviors that often lead to hospitalization. As a result, paradoxically, women with acute psychosis are less likely to be identified by means of an admission to the inpatient psychiatric units. Hospitalization is often dramatic and considered an aversive entry to mental health care,16 but it still represents one of the main doors through which to access FEP programs.17 Given these premises on clinical presentation, FEP services might consider accepting women with concomitant mood symptoms into treatment, reserving some time to conduct an in-depth differential diagnosis evaluation to clarify the diagnosis, and then referring women to the appropriate service.

Gender stereotypes and societal norms: These also can affect access to care and establishing the correct diagnosis. A woman’s call for help can be labeled as being overdramatic or acting out to gain attention.17 When gender stereotypes are intertwined with gender norms, access to care can be very problematic: Women are often the designated caregivers for infants and elderly relatives, so prioritizing the care of others could further delay their own access to treatment.18,19 Women, more often than men, are employed in precarious jobs with lower salaries and worse benefits (eg, less paid time off, more rigid schedules), challenging smooth access to care.1,20 FEP services should be sensitive to these gender differences and implement gender- targeted, early-detection interventions in outpatient health facilities, such as primary care, obstetric, and gynecologic clinics, where women with underrecognized psychosis may be found.

Factors Affecting Quality of Care for Women With FEP

Sexual and reproductive health: Monitoring for this should be considered an integral part of FEP services, considering that FEP usually manifests during adolescence and most importantly in the reproductive years. Women, by definition, carry a unique risk factor for new onset or relapse of psychosis: pregnancy.21 Quality of care for FEP is also measured by the attention to mental health monitoring when a woman with a past or current history of psychosis is pregnant and in the postpartum period.22 FEP services may facilitate ad hoc consultations with other services (eg, pediatrics, primary care, or obstetrics). A more systematic interagency collaboration is also suggested. For example, patients with FEP might receive best-practice reproductive care during the peripartum period for themselves and simultaneously access to pediatric care for their infants.

Physical health: Both genders can develop metabolic adverse effects due to the pharmacological treatment for psychosis, which contributes to an increase in cardiovascular risk within these populations.23,24 The choice of pharmacological treatment for women with FEP should be especially sensitive to those adverse effects, such as weight gain and hair loss, which are more heavily stigmatized in women.

Preventive medicine: Women with schizophrenia are less likely than those without a severe mental illness to receive Papanicolaou test screening for cervical cancer25 and half as likely as the general population to receive screening mammography.26 FEP services can act by providing education and facilitating the appropriate access to women-specific preventive programs.

Trauma-oriented care: Women, more than men, are victims of intimate partner violence that is linked to an increase in risk of manifesting psychotic experiences, especially in cases of multiple victimizations.27 Moreover, there is a strong association between exposure to traumatic events in childhood and increased risk of psychosis.28-31 It is recommended that FEP programs screen for past traumatic events and assess the current risk of trauma for the patient and potential children in the household.32

Concluding Thoughts

It is time for gender-sensitive FEP services.8,33,34 Being a woman is a key determinant in the pathway to and through mental health care for psychosis. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has further deepened the gender inequality35 with severe job losses in women-prevalent professions (eg, manufacturing, domestic aid); heavier burdens for care of infants and older adults, creating an imbalanced personal-professional life; a rise in domestic violence36; and a rise in distress related to increased risks for women’s health and that of the fetus in cases of pregnancy.37 All these factors could trigger a preexisting vulnerability to psychosis or further challenge access to specialized care.

Extant FEP services should take into consideration logistic and clinical adjustments. Scientific initiatives such as the Women’s Brain Project are becoming central for promoting strategies to leverage discoveries and implement gender-sensitive practices in brain and mental disorders.38

The gender-specific perspective presented here might unveil blind spots in the care delivered by FEP programs and may provide clinical guidance in tailoring such services39 to meet women’s needs. Closer consideration should be undertaken by stakeholders, care providers, and policy makers regarding the gender-specific needs of this subpopulation to access FEP-specialized care, as well as to receive appropriate treatment. By creating the infrastructure to support a comprehensive service tailored to women’s needs, we are paving the way to facilitate access and provide high-quality FEP services to women.

Dr Ferrara is an assistant professor at the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of Ferrara in Italy and an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.


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