A special Mental Health Awareness Week roundup of women’s health news and views

For this week’s Hysterical Women of the Week roundup I’ve focused on stories about women and mental health, in honour of Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW), which has been running from Monday 13th to Sunday 19th May.

However, it would be remiss not to mention arguably the biggest women’s health story of the week: the US state of Alabama introducing a near total ban on abortions. The horrifying new law has understandably sparked outcry around the world, but UK campaigners on reproductive rights – including bpas and Amnesty International – have pointed out the existing ban on abortion in Northern Ireland is even harsher.

Writing to supporters, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) said:

Alabama’s new abortion law has rightly sparked global outrage – as have similar restrictive laws recently introduced by other US states like Georgia and Ohio. But, alongside showing our solidarity with the women of America, we must not forget there are women living in the UK, in 2019, who cannot access abortion care legally in their own country.

Women in Northern Ireland still have no access to legal abortion services without travelling, and moreover any woman living in any area of the UK risks life in prison if she ends a pregnancy at any gestation without the permission of two doctors, under a law dating from 1861. Medical professionals also risk imprisonment for performing a safe, consensual abortion if the procedure is not approved by two doctors.

The situation in Northern Ireland is desperateEvery week, 28 women make the journey overseas to access care. Those who are unable to travel must choose between continuing with an unwanted pregnancy or turning to illegal online abortion pills – risking up to life in prison.

While the world rightly condemns Alabama, it is easy to forget that women’s reproductive rights are routinely denied just across the water in Northern Ireland.

The charity urged supporters to email their MP, and ask them to support reform as a matter or urgency.

Elsewhere this week…

There’s A Proven Link Between Negative Body Image & Suicidal Thoughts Now

Refinery29 reported on a survey published this week by The Mental Health Foundation, which found an alarming link between negative body image and suicidal thoughts.

All this stress about our bodies, it turns out, is contributing to worrying levels of mental health problems, with one in eight people having considered taking their own life because of concerns about their body, according to a new report on 4,500 UK adults by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), one of the largest polls on the issue. Meanwhile, just over a third (34%) said they’d felt anxious or depressed (35%) about their bodies.

As Bustle reports, the survey also found “a notable difference between women and men. One in 10 women reported that their body image had caused them to ‘deliberately hurt themselves.’ The same experience was relayed by one in 25 men. However, high numbers of men are still affected. A quarter of male respondents said they felt depressed when thinking about their body image.”

We Need To Talk About Black Women’s Mental Health

Nzinga Cotton wrote for Huffington Post this week, calling for black women to be included in the national dialogue around mental health awareness. Black women suffer disproportionately from poor mental health, she points out, and “black people in the UK are more likely than white people to be diagnosed with mental health problems and to be sectioned”. Race, and racism, undoubtedly play a part in black women’s mental health, and in the stigma surrounding their struggles. As Nzinga writes:

While we have plenty to be angry about, the way we express our pain and vulnerability can be stifled and constrained by fear of being labelled an angry black woman. This deeply offensive stereotype, which has its roots in racism and slavery, portrays black women as naturally aggressive and confrontational.

In my twenties my anxiety became debilitating, affecting all areas of my life. I never took any time off work or asked my employers to adjust my working hours. I didn’t want to be marked as a difficult, problematic black woman. It shames me that I actively sought to mask my anxieties and appear passive and non-threatening.

“Thankfully,” she concludes, “I have found ways to manage my mental health but I still feel let down by the care I received and the lack of awareness about the experiences of women like me.”

Louis Theroux’s new documentary on motherhood and mental health is so important

Another often overlooked area of mental health is perinatal and maternal mental health. Celebrated documentary maker Louis Theroux’s latest offering, which aired this week, explores motherhood and mental health, with a particular look at postpartum psychosis. As Glamour magazine says:

Watching these women try to articulate what they’re going through, as they respond to Louis’ typically vulnerable curiosity, is difficult. Their stories are harrowing and frightening. It’s distressing – and that’s precisely why we nee to see it.

You can watch Mothers On The Edge on BBC iPlayer. Also worth checking out while you’re there is Nadiya: Anxiety and Me, a new documentary from former Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain, exploring anxiety.

Is The ‘Stigma’ Of Mental Health Really Our Greatest Barrier To Treatment, Or Are We Failing People In Another Way?

Writer Yomi Adegoke wrote a really important piece for Elle magazine this week, breaking down the idea that ‘stigma’ is the main barrier to people accessing support for mental health problems. As she rightly points out: “‘Awareness’ is actually at an all time high, but yet mental health is at an all time low.”

In the stigma-free utopia we are running toward with arms outstretched – a place in which we have sloganed away all discomfort and found ourselves on the other side of shame – what are we actually likely to find? A broken, unworkable system, that is not equipped to deal with those who need it most.”

As we talk about mental health more than ever, more mental health services are being being closed down and waiting lists are only getting longer. In order for the change we incessantly speak of to occur, we have to act in a meaningful way to bolster the country’s resources for mental health treatment – and fast.

It took years of therapy to understand the issues behind my mental health – to blame it all on social media is naive

Another really important perspective this week came from Connie Muttock, the Policy and Communications Officer at Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, which runs the Women in Mind campaign. Writing for The Independent, Connie says:

Blaming the mental ill health of young women on our use of social media alone is not just naive, it’s patronising, and it undermines the difficulties many of us have faced. For all the women I know – and for me too – the picture is far more complex. For too many, histories of sexual or domestic abuse are at the root of mental ill health.

If we are ever going to address the crisis in young women’s mental health, we must not be cowardly and blame the easy option. Young women with mental ill health are being brave in the face of unspeakable adversity – we owe it to them to be brave about finding the solutions.

And finally…

BBC Newsbeat published an interview with 23-year-old artist Oliwia Bober, whose vulva paintings have been popping up on toilet doors across London as part of an installation launched by Bodyform.

“Women are often shamed for how they look, especially the most private and delicate part – and that is just a really unpleasant experience,” she tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

“I think it’s important to recognise that having a vulva or vagina isn’t something that makes a woman, but for a lot of women that have them they’re really important,” says Oliwia.