Agenda, an alliance of over 60 organisations for women at risk, submitted Freedom of Information requests to 57 Mental Health Trusts in England to identify the extent to which the needs of women are being met by mental health services. It was revealed yesterday that of the 35 that replied, just one area, Surrey, had a strategy focused specifically on the needs of women. The study also found that trusts are not routinely screening for domestic violence.
Why is it so important to have a strategy which takes account of women’s particular needs? It is clear that this question still needs to be asked, as currently it is not a common sense approach. One significant reason is the high proportion of women with mental health needs who have experienced violence and abuse, including abuse in childhood as well as adulthood experiences of domestic and sexual violence. The mental health impacts of these experiences can be profound, leading to anxiety and depression, trauma, self-harm and suicide. Experiences of VAWG also often lead to mis-trust towards men and feelings of shame and self-blame.
It’s vital therefore that women are able to access women only spaces and support where they feel safe, otherwise, for some women, even coming through the door may be too much. It’s also essential that staff are trained to identify and respond to gender based violence appropriately. As highlighted in Surrey’s strategy:
“Women have demonstrated that they do not just want ‘treatment’ for their symptoms but an understanding of the underlying causes and context of their distress, the opportunity to discuss these with empathetic professionals and each other, ‘safe’ environments whilst they are recovering from mental illness”.
Given that only one area of 37 has a strategy, it is clear that there is a long way to go. For me, it feels important to learn from Surrey. What outcomes have been achieved from taking a gendered approach? And what were the factors that led to Surrey devising it’s strategy? Perhaps this learning can inspire and guide other areas to follow suit.
Katharine Sacks-Jones, director of Agenda, said: "Our mental health trusts are not adequately considering the needs of women. "Women facing poor mental health are among the most vulnerable people. The majority have experienced violence and abuse and many report needing women-specific spaces to feel safe."