Collaboration • Knowledge • Leadership

Collaboration • Knowledge • Leadership

In a time of change, we can #BreaktheBias in women’s mental health too

Mar, 2022

This year marks a special International Women’s Day (IWD).

Just over a year after the release of the final report of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s mental health sector, Victorians have seen the start of many welcome mental health initiatives and the foundations of reform.

The changes offer an opportunity to address the needs of formerly under-serviced sections of the community, particularly women.

Every IWD is cause for reflection on how far we have come. In 1910 the first IWD rose up from the struggle of working women to obtain better pay and the right to vote.

Today, Australian women can expect not only to vote but to potentially stand for Prime Minister, but they still face unique pressures related to their gender.

Pandemic crushes women's mental health

This includes pressure on their mental health.

Prior to the pandemic, the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that one in six women lived with depression; one in three lived with anxiety.

Post-pandemic those figures have increased, with Gender Equity Victoria reporting 38 per cent of women in Victoria had been diagnosed with depression or anxiety by 2020 and 27 per cent stated they were experiencing high or very high levels of psychological distress.

Women consistently suffer higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and hospitalisations for self-harm than men.

An imbalanced system

The theme for this year’s IWD is #BreaktheBias.

In 1910, a woman encountering a mental health issue could expect to be socially isolated at minimum with no hope of effective treatment.

Alternately, a woman expressing herself vociferously could be labelled as mentally ill — "hysterical", requiring medical treatment.

The approach to mental health since then has much improved, but the bias around women’s mental health remains — notwithstaning welcome reforms such as the Specialist Women’s Mental Health Service announced in December.

Breaking the bias

There are two things needed to #breakthebias.

The first is making space for women in mental health reform, ensuring that the special needs of women are reflected in the new mental health system as it is built from the ground up in the Victorian reforms to the system.

The second is something we can all contribute to as individuals: resist language which conflates emotionality with mental ill-health and which associates femininity with mental frailty.

Together, we can make our communities spaces where women can heal and thrive.


Leanne Ansell-McBride is Joint Acting CEO of Mental Health Victoria.

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