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Putting the voice of women at the heart of mental health services

The Women’s Mental Health Network wants to give women with mental illness a voice - and drive change through mental health services that target women's specific needs. We spoke to Jenny Richards from the Network to hear more about their ambitious vision.

It’s great to meet you Jenny! First of all, can you tell me about the challenges that the Women’s Mental Health Network is trying to address?

The Network was born out of the desire to address the current lack of understanding of women’s mental health needs.

Women’s mental health is repeatedly dismissed as something that is not a gendered issue. Despite this, suicide is recognised as the single biggest killer for men under 45 - and gender stereotypes around being ‘manly’ stop many men from talking about their emotions in the way they should be able to.

Research shows that women are nearly twice as likely to have anxiety compared to men - with abuse (which women are more likely to experience) linked to the development of anxiety disorder. By not acknowledging the differences in the way mental illnesses are experienced by men and women, we are stopping both genders from getting the support they need. 

How was the Network founded? 

The Network is a new project run by Wish, a charity that works with women in prisons, hospitals and the community. Through the Network, we want to put the voices of vulnerable women at the heart of the mental health system – which is exactly where they should be.

The Network was founded by a number of voluntary organisations including People First, a learning disability charity, and St. Mungo’s, a homeless charity. This gives us an opportunity to pool our knowledge and gain a better understanding of women’s complex needs.

But, more importantly, it’s not just the voices of these organisations that are dominant - but the voices of the women we represent. We ensure that the women we work with are heard at every level, as they are best placed to know what will benefit them. By coming together we can drive forward real, structural change.

What do you want to make others aware of?

First of all, it’s important to recognise that there are multiple experiences that may contribute to women’s mental health issues. For example, over half of women have experienced sexual and physical abuse – and women are more likely to have low status, low income jobs and to live in poverty. We’re looking at these intersections of mental health and ask how we can give a more holistic approach when it comes to mental health care – rather than looking at each issue by itself.

We also want to encourage the use of gender-specific services. For example, if a woman has been a victim of sexual abuse by a man, it could undermine her treatment if there is a man patrolling a psychiatric ward, looking into her room at night.

How has the Network progressed since it began – what plans are underway?

We’re aiming to use the Network as a campaigning platform, and at the moment we’re in the process of consulting with thousands of women to ask what’s most important to them when it comes to mental health.

We’ve called this consultation ‘Turn Up The Volume’ and hope to talk to at least 5,000 women to understand their priorities – be it to do with the role of male staff, early intervention or the need for women-only housing options. To participate in the consulation women can sign up here.

What part do you see research playing in the organisation? How can it support the women you help?

The charity we stem from, Wish, was the first organisation to make gender a part of the wider mental health strategy – which came about as a result of research. In 1999, Wish produced a report which analysed gender differences in patients in high-security care and showed how to structure services for women with security and safety needs. It led to the set-up of Women’s Directorates, where women could access more gender sensitive services.

20 years on, we still believe research is vital when it comes to women’s mental health. There are so many misconceptions and misdiagnoses; women’s minds have been dismissed as ‘too complex’ for too long, which perpetuates the idea that women are ‘other’ and that their mental health is not something we can truly understand.

This is preventing progress in finding answers about women’s mental health. Through research, we can empower women with mental illnesses to understand what they are experiencing, which will give them back control in a system where they currently have very little power.

The Women’s Mental Health Network is open for anyone with an interest in women’s mental health to join.

Last updated: 15 May 2019

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