MPs have a responsibility to strengthen and safeguard women’s mental health services
We need to strengthen public policy on women's mental health through laws that safeguard and support community wellbeing services, writes Wera Hobhouse MP.
Nearly every week, I meet a constituent in my surgery struggling to access mental health services.
Whether it’s desperation over housing, Universal Credit, or Personal Independence Payments, the numbers of people struggling have increased dramatically, exacerbating mental health issues.
And for women, these problems are increasing.
More women - one in five - experience common mental health disorders like anxiety and depression compared with men, according to the charity Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk.
Young women are even more vulnerable with 26 percent at risk of these kinds of mental health problems — three times more than young men.
This Thursday, I will lead a debate on women’s mental health in the House of Commons. I hope this will be an opportunity to shine a light on these worrying numbers and explore the ways in which we can support women’s mental wellbeing through public policy.
We already know that eating disorders, the mental health condition with the highest mortality rate, affect women and girls more.
Many health professionals still reach for the scales when faced with an eating disorder, despite existing guidelines clearly advising against solely using weight for a diagnosis. Girls are turned away even when they are clearly suffering because they aren’t ‘thin enough’.
For over a year, I have been campaigning to #DumpTheScales - demanding shorter waiting times for adult sufferers and more education in medical schools around these deadly disorders.
We need to treat eating disorders as a mental health issue, not just a physical health issue.
Another trauma women face disproportionately is domestic violence, and yet, Agenda’s research shows too few NHS trusts are asking women about experiences of violence at home, despite existing national guidelines encouraging them to do just that.
Women appearing in hospitals or at their GPs surgeries with physical injuries are already struggling with the anguish and isolation of domestic abuse. If they were asked in that safe environment about their circumstances, more might find the courage to seek help.
I’m extremely pleased that with Parliament back in session and after a cross party campaign, the Domestic Abuse bill is now back on the legislative agenda. This will help bring justice to victims of domestic abuse, but we must prioritise support and wellbeing services.
One of the most shocking issues I’ve come across as an MP is the shortage of rape crisis centres in the UK.
After #metoo, rape survivors across England and Wales are struggling even to get on a waiting list for support. We know that more than half a million women in England and Wales experienced sexual assault in 2016, according to the England and Wales Crime Survey.
Yet with only 44 Rape Crisis Centres part-funded by the government, only a very small percentage of victims could access the help they needed.
The government must promise to ratify the Istanbul Convention - which more than 30 countries have already done.
The Convention would make it legally binding for the government to provide support and protection services to victims, like Fern Champion, who waived her right to anonymity after being repeatedly raped so that she could highlight the problems.
To strengthen women’s mental health, there is much more we can do.
We need to understand how the roles that many women have, as mothers and carers, are linked to their mental health. Caring responsibilities can add to the pressure of women experiencing mental health challenges.
A mother may be afraid to ask for help if she fears her children could be taken away. Services often fail to recognize the trauma that women experience through separation from their children, for example through extended stay in medical facilities.
We must think about what models work to support the wellbeing and mental health of women who are carers and mothers.
Mental health is complicated, and we don’t have all the answers yet. However, only by having open conversations about the problems can we can find lasting solutions.
Ultimately, as an MP, my colleagues and I have a responsibility to identify these solutions and safeguard them in law.
Only through strong laws can we build a society where equality, and wellbeing, is guaranteed for everyone.
Wera Hobhouse is Liberal Democrat MP for Bath.