One In Five: Women’s Mental Health
Mental health has come to the forefront of conversations recently, as it arguably should. Following World Mental Health Day, the first Ministerial Mental Health Summit took place in London and the conservatives appointed a Minister for Suicide Prevention. Overall, a lot has happened recently to change the perceptions surrounding mental health.
On Sunday at the Women of the World Festival, I attended the panel-led discussion One in Five: Women’s Mental Health. Chaired by Fiona Carden, director of the Exeter Colab, a wellbeing and innovation hub, the panel aimed to discuss the challenges facing women’s mental health.
When I told my husband that I was attending this particular talk, he questioned “Is women’s mental health different to men’s?” If we talked purely statistics, you could argue yes, it is. Women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem, with one in five women (hence the name of the talk) suffering with a Common Mental Disorder (CMD) as opposed to one in eight men. Suicide rates however show that a higher proportion of men take their own lives; it is the biggest cause of death in men aged between 15 and 45. (Mental Health.org) If there is such a drastic difference in statistical data between men and women, logic implies there must be a cause.
Meet the Experts
Joining Fiona on the panel to discuss the issue of women’s mental health were three women, each of whom had their own expertise in the world of mental health.
Georgia Dodsworth is the founder of World of Self Care, a brand that promotes mental wellbeing, self-care and self-love through workshops and events. Through her own experience as a BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) sufferer, Georgia was inspired to help others and became a Time to Change Champion. Georgia said:
“I feel like there is so much stigma attached to [personality disorders]. When you hear the name, people always make a weird face. I educate people about it and inspire people that whatever they are going through, they can make a change.”
Jayne Hardy is founder of the Blurt Foundation, an organisation that aims to increase awareness and understanding of depression. Driven by her own experiences of depression and the lack of literature available to her when she was first diagnosed, she created the foundation not only to educate and inform those with the condition, but also to those supporting loved ones with depression. Jayne said:
“I’m really passionate that self-care is health care.”
Megan Beech is a poet and began by mockingly saying “naturally, because I’m a poet, I have depression”. Megan, like Georgia, also has BPD and has gained her understanding of mental health through “lived experience”.
“I’m really passionate about access to health care and the inequality we still see in who gets help and who gets treated and who doesn’t.”
What is Self-care?
From simple acts like brushing your teeth to getting out of bed in the morning, self-care is literally how we take care of ourselves and keep ourselves alive and healthy. Georgia explained it as “something we all practice without realising”. For people suffering from conditions such as depression, it is often simple acts like eating and getting out of bed that are the most difficult. Jayne explained:
“We’re not taught how to take care of ourselves [ …] Self-care helps us all to be the best version of ourselves.”
“My relationship with self-care is a bit difficult […] That’s the first thing that goes from my world when I’m not well.”
Being Real With My Mental Health
Most of the panel confessed that at times they had lied about their mental health to their friends and family. The shame and embarrassment surrounding mental health is still there, no matter how much we wish it weren’t. That feeling of being deficient, surrounded by others whose lives seem so perfect, lingers on. Georgia admitted:
“There was a time when I didn’t tell anyone about my mental health and I would just be like, ‘oh I have a tummy ache’ […] and make up excuses. Then I started to be real with them and say ‘I’m just not feeling good today; I can’t stop crying’.
When I first started having those conversations, I felt empowered. The responses I was getting was that my friends understood.”
Jayne too admitted lying and fabricating other physical illnesses rather than talking openly about her mental health. It was social media, in the end, that gave Jayne the support she needed. After seeing how honest people were online about their mental health, she decided to open up and ‘be real’ about hers, gaining a social support network online.
Megan felt she had no one to talk to when she was first diagnosed at eighteen, having moved to London for University. She feels, like Jayne, that things are changing now with regards to mental health.
“There’s a much more unspoken ‘finding your tribe’ nowadays. […] I’m a big advocate for living with my illness. Rather than saying ‘I’m suffering from BPD or depression’ I think I’m living with it and it’s a core element of my life […] For me, it became as comfortable as breathing saying I’m living with depression.”
Pressures on Young People
The discussion turned to young people’s mental health as Megan discussed her work in schools and how surprised she was at the openness with which the students talked about their mental health. Jayne opened up about her fears for her daughter, saying:
“We’re putting so much pressure on young children but we haven’t taught them the coping [mechanisms] to deal with it.”
Georgia, who dropped out of school at fourteen said that “school just didn’t understand” and although she didn’t want to drop out, her school didn’t know “how to cope” with her. She was subsequently labelled as a “school refuser” and had to be home-schooled.
“Even in PSHE, we weren’t taught about mental health. It was all about bullying or drugs or stuff like that, which is really important! But what about the emotional sides; how does it feel to be happy? how does it feel to be sad? and all the bits in between.”
In her experience, the pastoral care team at her school weren’t equipped in dealing with her mental health and she feels more training and funding should be given to schools. As an ex-teacher, I have to say she’s preaching to the converted there.
For me, mental health in schools is quite a sensitive issue. Having spent four years teaching a curriculum that I often didn’t agree with, I couldn’t be more on board with Georgia’s suggestion that we need some kind of mental health lessons or that it needs to be as great a focus in PSHE as bullying. Having suffered with depression and anxiety due to the pressures involved in teaching, I feel that there is a greater issue surrounding mental health in schools: how can we educate children to be mentally healthy when over half of their teachers are not?
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to ask Georgia and the panel for their views on this:
“A study by the Independent this year showed that more than half of teachers have suffered with mental health issues. As I’m sure you all know from experience, you can’t help others until you have helped yourselves. What can we do to help teachers with their mental health, which in turn will help the children that they teach?”
Georgia responded first, saying:
“I think that the government needs to provide people to go in and teach teachers how to look after themselves and get charities in. […] Every school should have a mental health first aider. […] It’s time for schools to reach out to their local councils […] and say ‘Look, we’re all struggling, we need more help.’”
Jayne picked up the conversation after Georgia, saying:
“I think the whole educational system is just ridiculous. The focus is on what you achieve and teachers are under such pressure […] to get [the children] these As and A*s. There are other countries in Europe who are doing it and are doing it better. Our grades aren’t everything.”
Jayne faltered here and confessed she didn’t really know what the answer was and Fiona acknowledged that my question was a big one and that “we need[ed] an afternoon on that”.
Finding and Keeping Support
Georgia discussed the role of crisis teams and crisis houses and how helpful she has found these when she herself has been in crisis. She made a valid observation in speaking about relapsing by saying:
“If you are feeling better it’s not about writing yourself off; recheck in with yourself every day.”
Jayne spoke about the importance of her family in supporting her through her difficult times, as well as her good times. She has found being able to talk about her mental health as part of her work “therapeutic” and highlighted the importance of services she has used such as Samaritans and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy through the NHS.
Megan agreed about the importance of therapy, however she found that the therapy provided by the NHS (group therapy once a week with no other attendees and talk therapy once a fortnight) did not work for her. She now has private psychotherapy twice a week.
One of the points raised by an audience member revolved around this idea of ‘crisis’. The term had been used or referred to a lot so far in the discussion. The audience member, who works for public health, said that this is “one of the things I feel is fundamentally wrong with our system”. She argued that we should not have to reach a crisis point before we get help. She continued “we need a call of action” to “demand better primary care around mental health”. She highlighted some successful programs already in place in schools, such as Early Help 4 Mental Health (EH4MH) but said that services such as these are being cut, leaving schools worse equipped than they were before in terms of dealing with mental illness.
The panel could not agree more. They described their own experiences and those of friends where they were not ill enough to receive the help they needed. Megan recalled a quote from a friend who suffered with anorexia: “Do I have to be dead for them to help me?” Having worked in education, I know first-hand that you are required to ‘prove’ that a child meets the criteria for help; whether this is due to a learning disability or an application for support through CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). Georgia echoed this as she herself had been through the process of ‘proving’ to CAMHS that she was mentally ill enough to warrant their help.
“My performance to the doctor is a ten minute slot”; Megan’s ironic words in comparing her career as a performance poet to the everyday struggle of mental health. “You shouldn’t have to be giving a manifesto or a speech to be taken seriously” she continued. Jayne agreed, recounting a story of a friend who got lost in the system and it was only when she was dying of anorexia that she received the help she had tried to seek. Megan took up the thread again here, saying:
“This change has to come from funding and higher structures […] look at [politicians] manifestos. […] Saying ‘we think mental health is really important’ is not the same as giving £4 million to services.”
Crisis could be used as an adjective for many systems in our country at present; education, health care, and in particular mental health care, even Brexit. From my own experience, I didn’t seek help with the way I was feeling until I was in crisis as a huge part of me felt that I would not be believed or that my suffering was not at a point where I would receive help.
Coming back to the point my husband made at the beginning of this article, I reconsidered the idea of men and women’s mental health as being separate. The seminar had highlighted the suffering still felt by the women in the room in terms of mental illness, but it also brought messages of hope and change through examples of lived experience and the campaigns that these fantastic women are a part of. Is this different to men’s suffering? I don’t think so. Having conversations of gender in isolation will only divide society further.
Leaving the discussion, I did not come away with answers to my question, though in all honesty I hadn’t expected this. For me, the discussion very much surrounded the concept of ‘It’s ok to not be ok’ and that it’s ok to talk about not being ok. There are no quick fixes for our systems in crisis; men’s mental health is equally as critical as women’s. But I, and many others in the room, opened up about my mental health in a safe and accepting atmosphere and I, like many others, felt validated in knowing that I’m not the only one who finds things hard sometimes. That must be worth something.