Mental health problems are extensive but often hidden, with one in four adults experiencing a diagnosable mental health problem in any one year representing the largest single cause of disability in the UK.
Women have higher rates of depression and are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders than men, with the most excluded women and girls, such as those who have experienced extensive abuse and whose lives have spiralled off-course, being particularly vulnerable to mental ill-health.
There has been limited focus on women’s mental health in recent years – except for a specific focus on women’s perinatal services in the recent Five Year Forward View – the Mental Health Taskforce Report does not highlight the differences between men’s and women’s mental health. Women’s life experiences, socio-economic realities, expressions of mental distress, pathways into services, and treatment needs and responses, differ greatly from those of men. Women tend to experience more common mental health disorders than men across their lives – more depression, more anxiety, more eating disorders, more PTSD. However, even with a rising rate of female suicide, women’s mental health needs are not receiving ‘adequate consideration’.
Agenda’s briefing, which reports the results of a Freedom of Information request to 57 Mental Health Trusts in England to identify the extent to which the needs of women are being met by mental health services, found that only one Trust has a women’s mental health strategy. Although only 35 out of the 57 responded, 34 did not have a strategy explicitly recognising women’s mental health needs, and responses to the FOI request suggest that there is little gender awareness in the Trusts’ policies.
Women and girls with mental health problems, especially those who have suffered the most extensive abuse and violence, are in need of specialist support and this cannot be purely clinical but must link into wider holistic care. The voluntary and community sector plays a significant role in providing dedicated, women-only, trauma-informed services, which provide a safe space for women to open up about their experiences in a way they may not be comfortable doing around men. These, and other, services help women rebuild self-esteem, offer support around domestic and sexual violence, parenting, housing, debt, employment and a whole range of other services, and provide hope that life can get better. Health services need to be attuned to women’s mental health. Everyone in the health sector, particularly the NHS, needs to be aware that women’s mental health, trauma and abuse are strongly linked, and there is a need to implement a trauma-informed response and put in place the right services that take account of this.
There are gender-related differences between men and women’s mental health, and many women want and need gender-specific and gender-aware responses. The mental health voluntary and community sector makes a positive and demonstrable difference to people with mental health needs, aiming to improve the quality of care and the outcomes of the services provided, and so it is essential that there is a gender-focused approach across the treatment spectrum. It is vital that the third sector, in partnership with the Government and the NHS, considers how women’s mental health services, particularly for women facing multiple disadvantages, can work in a more gender-informed manner. MHPF believes service provision should consider the needs of female mental health patients and must be delivered in partnership with the voluntary and community sector, which is crucial both nationally and locally through its design and delivery of services, invaluable expertise and understanding of community needs to shape services.