Why mental health care needs to be gender-specific: the launch of the Women’s Mental Health Network

This is a guest blog from the team at Wish - many thanks to them!

Surely mental health services should be for everyone? Isn’t it discriminatory to have mental health services just for women?

Since working with women’s mental health charity Wish I’ve had to answer these questions a lot. The reality is, similarly to any section of society, we are still far from achieving equality when it comes to the mental health system, with there being gender bias in treatment, and with women being negatively affected even before they reach the mental health services.

Women are more likely to experience poverty, be in low status and low income jobs, and are also more likely to be victims of domestic abuse. These different life experiences that women go through need to be taken into account when looking at which service to place them in that will best meet their needs.

Through focus groups Wish held, we found that women want gender-specific talking therapies that take their life experiences and past trauma into account, rather than just putting them onto medication. It needs to be understood that we live in an unequal society and women have different life experiences because of the fact they are women, and this will naturally affect their mental health – so shouldn’t it also affect their mental health care?

An example of taking gender into account when it comes to service provision is looking at that fact that 53% of women with mental health issues have experienced abuse. And, in Wish’s focus group, the women shared how in some circumstances it’s just not ok to have men providing services to women; it can be intimidating and re-traumatising, particularly for those who have experienced abuse previously. The role of male staff including: care co-ordinators, psychiatrists, and mental health liaison staff in A&E, needs to be reviewed in order to stop undermining women’s mental health care.

In order to address this current lack of understanding of women’s mental health needs, Wish recently launched the Women’s Mental Health Network. This is a partnership of voluntary organisations working across the sector, aiming to provide a user-led, campaigning platform to give women with mental health needs a voice, and drive forward change. The Network will focus on improving women’s experience of using statutory services in a range of settings, such as hospitals, prisons, drugs and alcohol, housing, social services, by influencing them to become more gender-specific.

Wish’s frontline work, supporting women with mental health needs in hospitals and prisons, has taught us the value of these gender-specific services, with us having witnesses first-hand the inadequacies in the current system, including: costly & harmful and often unnecessary incarceration, harm to women with unmet support needs and their children, fragmented and duplicating systems, stressful working environments for mental health staff, and the compromising of human rights through the unnecessary use of force.

Just one example of these inadquacies is that wards are often mixed-sex, despite the latest research from the Care Quality Commission finding that sexual incidents including harassment, assaults and rapes are “commonplace” in mental health units, mainly carried out by patients. And the CQC’s ‘Monitoring the Mental Health Act’ report in 2010/11 found that women being treated under the mental health act frequently reported experiencing verbally abusive and threatening behaviour from male patients but would not inform staff because of fear of being seen to cause trouble. Women are being repeatedly silenced, undermined and retraumised in these supposed care services, and the Women’s Mental Health Network is about comabting these current inadquacies in the system and giving margalinsed women a voice, so that they can be the ones to drive forward change at a service level.

That’s why we are currently in our consultation stage of our Network, asking women with experience of the mental health and/or criminal justice system to identify the top three issues within service provision that need to change, and we will then be developing user-led campaigns to improve these issues. This will be done to implement gender-specific statutory services; and then we will take these campaigns forward at a national level.

To fill out our questionnaire, go to womensmentalhealthnetwork.com/consultation and help usensure that the voices of women will finally be heard in the mental health system.