Guest post by Jennifer Richards, Policy & Communications Officer for Wish, the only national, user-led mental health charity working with women in hospitals, prisons and in the wider community

wish-logoEarlier this year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said that improving people’s mental health should be a Europe-wide priority. Here at Wish we know that, in order to improve mental health, we need to recognise the importance gender plays.

In the recent ‘Making Places Work For Women’ report by the charity Agenda, they highlighted how one million women in England face both poverty and high levels of violence and abuse, with this group being disproportionately likely to suffer from mental ill health (55%), alcohol addiction (28%), and to also experience homelessness (21%).

This report shows the impact of adverse life experiences on mental health, and how different life experience interrelate. For example, if a woman has been a victim of abuse, she is more likely to experience a mental health condition, and thus may also be more likely to turn to alcohol as a way to cope.

Some of these life conditions are more likely to affect women simply because they are
women. Women still: face sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace; are
largely excluded from boardrooms; experience more poverty; and are the victims of actual and potential sexual violence both in and outside our homes. Women are still expected to look pretty, speak quietly, and act gently, and if we deviate from this stereotypical behaviour, we are often judged as “bad”, “mad” or both.

At Wish, our services recognise this oppression women experience, with women being
judged by a different value system to men, in both daily life, but also when it comes to the psychiatric system. That’s why our latest project, the Women’s Mental Health Network, is a campaigning platform that will work to give women with mental health needs a voice.

The Network’s focus is to improve 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. This means the services will recognise women’s different life experiences.

One example of this would be male staff not peering in on women staying in wards during the night, as this risks re-traumatising them if they have previously experienced abuse. This recognition of women’s different experiences is also why the Network is bringing organisations from across the sector together to ensure we can pool our knowledge of different areas to support women with complex needs.

At the moment, the Women’s Mental Health Network is in its consultation period. We are inviting women with experience of the mental health and/or criminal justice system to tell us what your priorities are when it comes to mental health and other statutory services.

We’re asking you 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 drive forward the provision of gender-specific statutory services; and then we will take these campaigns forward at a national level.

To fill out the questionnaire, go to The Women’s Health Network, and help us ensure that
the voices of women will finally be heard in the mental health system.