Women in Mind
19 Dec 2018
Agenda Alliance’s campaign to keep women’s mental health needs in mind.
29 Jun 2020
During the last few months the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions introduced to limit the spread of the virus have put unprecedented pressure on the nation’s mental health.
Women, in particular, have struggled – a Mind survey of over 16,000 people shows that 63 per cent of women report that their mental health deteriorated under lockdown, compared with 51 per cent of men. And Women’s charity Refuge have reported a significant increase in their domestic abuse helpline services during lockdown.
The charities Mind and Agenda are calling for investment in tailored mental health support for women, following a £1.8m Tampon Tax-funded pilot programme of women-only peer support. The Women Side by Side programme has supported around 5,800 women across 71 projects, from Grenfell survivors to women living with HIV, through high-quality women-only peer support.
Peer support is the name given to activities that enable people to use their own experiences to help each other. This might include self-help groups or mentoring.
An evaluation report of Women Side by Side, published in June 2020, shows that women who attended projects experienced less loneliness and isolation than before. They experienced a better connection to friends and neighbours, higher self-esteem, and more positive feelings their social environments. They also learned new skills, felt more able to talk about their mental health, and described feeling more confident. Evidence shows that improvements in all these areas of a person’s life can be an indicator of improved mental health.
Around one in five (19 per cent) women experience a common mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression. More than one in two women with a mental health problem has experienced some form of violence and abuse. The Women Side by Side projects were led by and aimed at some of the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups, for example, those experiencing mental health problems, homelessness, drug and alcohol misuse, abuse and violence, family breakdown, offending or a combination of these.
The programme was funded for one year and came to an end in March. Mind and Agenda are now calling for peer support to be recognised, valued and given the investment it needs as we emerge from lockdown.
Jane, 39, London has taken part in the emotional and wellbeing peer support group as part of Women Side by Side and Clean Break, she says:
“I’ve experienced mental health problems for a long time, some of it was family-related due to emotional neglect and drinking problems from my Dad and abuse from my brother. This resulted in me taking drugs and developing a drug addiction throughout my twenties. The long-lasting impact of trauma, drug addiction and domestic violence had a huge impact on my wellbeing and mental health.
“I started with the Women Side by Side emotional health and wellbeing peer support group. I’d done skills-based courses, but what I realised I needed was the emotional support from and with people with shared experiences. That’s why peer support is so important. For the first time through the peer support group, I saw a way of healing. A lot of the women have experienced domestic violence or child abuse – so having groups for and by people who identify as women, makes the women feel safer, I don’t think they would open up if it was men.
“I’m really missing not having the face-to-face contact and benefits that I get from attending the session because of the pandemic. It’s not just the group but also being able to share meals and go to theatre trips with other women you share similar experiences with makes a huge difference, and it makes you feel valued rather than another statistic. I understand and agree these measures had to happen. But the knock-on effect on people’s mental health can’t be underestimated. I can’t wait until it’s over.”
Mel Rattue, Founder of Positively Mindful Mel is a trained mindfulness facilitator, who works in schools, businesses and communities. She was the Coordinator for Mind’s Side by Side project 'Positive Talks' with Positively UK and is a member of the 4M Mentor Mothers Network. As a woman living with HIV for 20 years, she has benefitted directly from peer support, having safe supportive spaces has been essential in her journey to good mental health and has empowered her to rise up to be the director of Positively Mindful CIC which, provides community support to maintain wellbeing.
Vicki Nash, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Mind, says:
“Women Side by Side has offered a safe, non-judgemental and collaborative space for women from all walks of life who need support for their mental health – whatever the reason. Peer support can be a major platform for people’s recovery. Sharing your experiences with someone you can identify with away from clinical health settings can be crucial for those of us with mental health problems.
“We know that the journey to good mental health can be difficult, especially for women who have faced traumatic life events such as domestic violence. Peer support is one option that can be offered to make sure people stay well in their communities. It increases people’s sense of choice and hope, in a safe and therapeutic environment, improving people’s wellbeing.
“The devastating impact of Covid-19 has shown the huge impact that trauma will have on society, and particularly the disproportionate impact on those facing multiple disadvantage. Going forward services must be culturally appropriate, and trauma and gender-informed. To do this the government must urgently take forward the recommendations of the Women’s Mental Health Taskforce so that anyone experiencing domestic abuse can get the urgent help they need. We also want to see enquiries into domestic and sexual violence made standard practice across mental health services as part of the Domestic Abuse Bill.
“As we emerge from lockdown and start to look to the future, we need to see community-based peer support services like those taking part in the Women Side by Side project be properly funded so they can continue alongside statutory mental health services across England and Wales.”
Jemima Olchawski, Chief Executive of Agenda, says:
“For women, poor mental health is often linked to experiences of violence and abuse and the legacy of that trauma. Without support, they may use drugs and alcohol to cope with or internalise their distress through self-harming or developing an eating disorder.
"This programme has shown that women-only peer support can make a real difference to the lives of women with these experiences; enabling some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised women to get much-needed support, tailored to their needs and experiences as women.
“It is vital that women-only peer support is given the investment and support needed to become sustainable. Commissioners, funders, evaluators and policymakers must recognise the value of peer support, and crucially the often small specialist community and women’s organisations that deliver them, and ensure it is part of a wider package of interventions aimed at improving women’s mental health – especially during this difficult time.
“Women’s mental health has been hit hardest in the wake of the Covid-19 health emergency alongside a devastating spike in violence against women and girls. Responding to the particular needs and experiences of women and girls is essential as we move out of lockdown. Going forward, peer support’s valuable role in rebuilding networks and supporting women to overcome poor mental health will be more vital than ever.”
The Women Side by Side Policy Report is based on an evaluation of the project conducted by the McPin Foundation and St George’s.*
Examples of the projects include:
Clean Break – a women’s theatre organisation, which works in prisons and other communities across the UK.
New Day Singers – a women’s community choir in Yorkshire
The Survivors’ Forum – a safe online community providing peer support for women affected by domestic abuse, from the Women's Aid Federation of England.
The Ethiopian Women Empowerment Group (EWEG) which will provide peer support to address mental health problems in women affected by the Grenfell disaster. The project will predominantly work with Black, Minority Ethnic & Refugee (BAMER) women from Ethiopian, Moroccan, Egyptian, Eritrean, Somalian and Asian communities who are isolated as a result of language and other barriers, and who struggle to access mainstream services.
See a full list of successful projects here.
*Research Reference: Mind worked alongside St George’s, University of London; The McPin Foundation; and London School of Economics to undertake a major piece of research into peer support in community settings. The project heard from over 750 people across nine areas of England and found that access to peer support improves people’s wellbeing and helps them manage their mental health problem.