Collaboration • Knowledge • Leadership

Collaboration • Knowledge • Leadership

Pandemic shines a spotlight on women’s mental health

Aug, 2021

COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on women’s mental health and how it is linked to the wider context in which women live their lives.

The pandemic has seen a substantial increase in demand for mental health support among women.

There are clear links between this increase in mental ill-health among women and the ways in which COVID-19 restrictions have amplified existing social and economic inequalities affecting women.

Women are more likely to have lost their job, they have taken on a far greater share of additional unpaid care, and rates of family violence have climbed sharply.

Different groups of women have been impacted differently, highlighting the ways in which gender inequality intersects with other forms of discrimination, like racism and economic inequality.

Young women, for example, are a cohort of increasing concern. Young women report high levels of psychological distress and were already presenting to mental health services with self-harm and suicidal behaviours at increasing rates before the pandemic struck.

COVID-19 has only exacerbated this, with reports of significant spikes in presentations for both self-harm and suicidal behaviours and eating disorders among young women.

We know that women and girls generally experience poorer mental health than men and boys throughout their lives and tend to access mental health services more often. But are those services meeting their needs?


Mental health services fail women and girls

As I recently argued in the Age, mental health services in Victoria frequently fail to recognise and accommodate the needs of women and girls, and sometimes even make things worse.

Recognising women’s right to be safe when they access mental health services, the Royal Commission’s recommendation that all new and existing mental health facilities be upgraded to enable gender separation is welcome. So too is the recommended review and expansion of perinatal mental health services.

But if the Royal Commission’s reforms are to deliver real change for women, we can’t just tinker around the edges. We need to redesign the whole mental health system so that it is gender-responsive. Women and girls make up around half the population after all!

And outdated gender norms and attitudes impact the mental health and wellbeing of men and gender diverse people too. We all stand to benefit from a gender-responsive approach to mental health that breaks down unhelpful gender stereotypes.

The Royal Commission’s reforms offer us a chance to build a new mental health system that works better for women in all their diversity. Victoria is a world leader in many other areas of women’s rights and gender equality. So what are we waiting for?

Mischa Barr is Policy & Health Promotion Manager at Women's Health Victoria.

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