Paula Sherriff MP: Urgent attention is needed around women and girls’ mental health

Posted On: 
18th May 2018

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Paula Sherriff MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Mental Health and Social Care writes on PoliticsHome for the need for greater attention to women and girls mental health.

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As we mark Mental Health Awareness Week, there are signs that awareness and understanding of mental illness is growing. It’s great that more and more people in the public eye are talking openly about mental health, including a number of MPs who have shared their own experiences. All this helps to challenge stigma and discrimination. But awareness alone is not enough.

We need action.

Urgent attention is needed around women and girls’ mental health. The latest figures show that while rates of mental ill health have remained stable among men in recent years, mental ill health among women has grown. Now about one in five women has a mental health problem, compared to one in eight men.

While significant efforts have rightly been made to address the appalling suicide rate among men and encourage them to talk about their mental health, we must ensure women and girls are not forgotten.

Young women are now the highest risk group for mental health issues. One in five self-harm and an alarming one in seven has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder – usually the result of a life-threatening event.

Of course, the reasons behind mental health issues are complicated.

Poor mental health is often rooted in the disadvantages women face; women in poverty are almost twice as likely as women not in poverty to experience a common mental health problem. While the Government’s Race Disparity Audit found that BAME women face particularly high rates of mental illness.

The pressures of motherhood and caring responsibilities, the hyper-sexualisation of women and girls' bodies, especially under the magnifying glass of social media, can certainly play a part in women and girls’ mental health.

But for so many women and girls this is about their experiences of violence and abuse.

According to research by Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, of all women who have a common mental health disorder more than half have experienced violence and abuse. For one in four that abuse started in childhood. And for those with the most severe mental health problems, the links are even more pronounced.

Campaigns like #Metoo and #Timesup have drawn welcome attention to the prevalence of abuse and gender-based violence. But this is not enough – because we know that so many women with mental health problems, especially those with experience of violence, abuse and trauma, struggle to get the vital support they need from mainstream mental health services.

In a Freedom of Information request by Agenda, only one of the responding mental health trusts had a women's mental health strategy, recognising women's mental health as an issue. And, contrary to health guidelines, the majority of trusts had no policy on ‘routine enquiry’ – where all female patients are asked if they have experienced abuse.

It is sadly no surprise that recent research for Agenda found the use of physical restraint against women and girls in mental health settings was widespread, despite the very real risk of re-traumatisation to those who have experienced abuse. I share the organisation’s hope to see this issue improve with the help of the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Bill currently going through the Commons, which aims to reduce the use of force in mental health settings, including through training on the impact of restraining patients who have experienced trauma and abuse. 

But with all the evidence pointing to the worsening state of women and girls' mental health, there needs to be political will to make it a priority before it is too late.

If we are to avert this crisis, we need action now.

This means investing in both community support to ensure women and girls are able to get help when they need it and before they reach a crisis – right up to ensuring secure mental health settings have the resources they need to be the caring and therapeutic environments they should be.

It means a change of approach that recognises and responds to women and girls’ needs and their experiences of trauma.

We’re starting to see a growth in public awareness of both mental health and women and girls’ experiences of abuse - now it’s time to start recognising the links between the two.

That's why I support Agenda’s Women in Mind campaign calling for the Government and the health service to take women's particular needs, and especially their history of abuse and trauma, into account in mental health services.

So this Mental Health Awareness Week, let's ensure that women and girls are a key part of the discussion - then let’s make sure that there’s political action to match the words.


Paula Sherriff is Labour MP for Dewsbury. She is Shadow Minister for Mental Health and Social Care​.