Are Women Being Forgotten in Mental Healthcare?

In December 2017, the Mental Health Foundation published a report that focused on the worsening situation amongst women and girls regarding mental health and wellbeing, entitled While Your Back Was Turned: How Mental Health Policy Makers Stopped Paying Attention to the Specific Needs of Women and Girls.

The document argues that there is an increasing divide between the mental health of men and women which is not being reflected in gender conscious initiatives and investment.

Startlingly, young women in the UK are now three times more likely to experience a common mental health problem than young men. In the early nineties they were only twice as likely. They are three times more likely to suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, eating disorders, depression and anxiety. Women experience more panic attacks; 32% compared to 19% amongst men. Levels of self-harm have significantly increased amongst young girls, from 6.7% in 2000 to 25.7% in 2014, with one in five 16-24 year old women having self-harmed. This number is halved in relation to young men. According to the 2014 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 25% of young women reported mental health disorder symptoms having been experienced recently. Young women showed a higher level of suicide attempts than any other group and campaigners highlight the damaging role of self-harm and abuse in coping, which spreads amongst peers. Those young women and girls from disadvantaged and minority groups often face a multitude of risk factors and challenges, making them more susceptible to mental health challenges.

This broad divide between the sexes is not so evident amongst higher age brackets, suggesting emerging social trends and pressures are condemning younger women and girls to worsening mental wellbeing. Causes of the widening divide include the disproportionate impact of austerity on females, with analysts identifying 86% of cut-backs directly falling on women and young girls: ‘In total, austerity cuts have cost women a total of £79bn since 2010, compared with £13bn for men.’ The sharp rise in domestic violence and abuse is a powerful contributory factor in worsening female mental health. The report tells us that ‘recorded cases of domestic violence have risen 31% between 2013 and 2015. Over half of those who experience abuse and violence as a child or adult experience a “common mental health disorder.”’ This increased vulnerability, coupled with a lack of sufficient care, results in a greater likelihood of suffering further domestic and or sexual violence and with that severe mental trauma and illness.

The stressful world of online presence and perception is often cited as detrimental to the wellbeing of girls and this is reinforced by the findings of the report. A staggering 90% of teenage girls surveyed said they were unhappy with their bodies, with many arguing that exposure to unobtainable body images online was the cause. The Girl Guides found worrying levels of low self-esteem in their work with young people, with 47% of girls aged 11-21 saying that the way they look holds them back, while 69% of girls aged 7-21 said they felt that they were “not good enough.” In conjunction with the physical denigration felt by many, 49% of girls aged 11-21 said that they were expressively silenced by a fear of abuse online. Many did not feel it was safe to express opinions, fearing a backlash from the trolls of social media. Consequently, sexism online had made them feel silenced in all aspects of their life.

In the light of this stark statistical evidence, the report asks why female mental health is side-lined or confined to smaller remits of action. Whereas the Labour government spearheaded a government strategy on women’s mental health, which looked to tackle key issues such as violence against women and promote gender equality, under the incumbent government initiatives of this nature have been slowly been written out of policy: ‘it appears that an earlier focus on young women and girls has now been subsumed within a broader arena of children and young people. The needs of women as a specific group are almost exclusively addressed in terms of perinatal services, and the earlier emphasis on gender sensitive and cultural change has been lost.’ Prime minister Theresa May promised a revolution in mental health treatment in January 2016, but the £290 million allocation to women focused only on the mental health of new and expectant mothers. The commitment made no other mention of ‘a gender dimension to services.’ Again in the cash boast committed to the health of children and young people in 2017, there was no mention of gender specific care for girls, despite the broadening crisis.

This approach excludes the unique gender specific needs of women facing mental health issues, from domestic violence to social media, but also ignores how women cope with mental health problems. The report explores substantive evidence that reveals how women cope differently with mental health difficulties to men. For example, they are more likely to seek the comfort of family company, to exercise and disclose their difficulties to others. The report argues that this evidences how the genders not only have different mental health triggers but different coping mechanisms and by that reasoning, require different gender-sensitive support structures and preventative initiatives.

The report makes the following recommendations in the light of the findings:

1. There needs to be increased attention to gender across mental health policy.

2. The Children and Young People’s mental health agenda must be gender sensitive and assessed for gender equality.

3. There must be clearly identified government structures for sustained leadership and action to improve young women and girls’ mental health.

4. Action for young women and girls’ mental health should take a whole communities approach.

5. Data on mental health outcomes should be systematically collected and disaggregated on gender, age and other protected characteristics.

Mental health became a hot talking point during the 2017 election campaign, as parties vied to be the most caring and the most competent on the subject. But as the profile of mental healthcare rises generally, detailed and tailored provision addressing identifiable issues recedes. Nowhere is this more evident that regarding women and girls. Until social issues faced by women are acknowledged to be intersectional with their mental health and until policy composition is sensitive to differing gender needs, this worrying trend will continue to develop in plain sight of Mrs May and her mental health champions.

By Daisy Whittingham of Handsam Ltd

Handsam Ltd is a leading provider of compliance consultancy services, online management systems, support and advice to the education sector. Visit their online resource website at handsam.education to find out more about their offering to schools.

Handsam Ltd is a leading provider of compliance consultancy services, online management systems, support and advice to the education sector.

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