The links between abuse and women’s mental health can’t be ignored
NOVEMBER 25, 2016
Katharine Sacks-Jones, Director, Agenda
Today is the international day for the elimination of violence against women. A sad reminder of how common violence against women still is around the world and here in the UK.
Research for Agenda, Hidden Hurt, identified a group of women who suffer the most extensive abuse. One in 20 women in England have experienced both physical and sexual abuse as a child and an adult. That is a shocking 1.2 million women who face the devastating and traumatic consequences of abuse on and off right across their lives. It is no surprise that this group face high levels of mental and physical ill health, addiction, poor housing and homelessness and poverty.
Despite this high level of need, too many women report that they can’t get support and instead are being let down by services which don’t recognise the impact of abuse and trauma in their lives. Mental health is a glaring example.
The latest research for our campaign Women in Mind shows that only one mental health trust of the 35 who responded to our Freedom of Information request in England had a women’s mental health strategy. In no other mental health trust was there a strategy explicitly recognising women’s mental health needs.
And it gets worse: only five services who responded to us offered women a choice of having a female care worker, something which is particularly important for vulnerable women who have suffered abuse at the hands of men. Just over the half the trusts had no policy on asking women about their experience of abuse, despite the clearly established links between abuse and mental ill health. What’s more, most trusts do not routinely offer proper therapeutic support to even those patients who tell them about the abuse and violence they have suffered.
This is a fundamental problem. It means that most mental health services, who one might expect to be the most sensitive to the history of their female patients, do not even try and join the dots and look at the links between mental illness and abuse. If they do not do it, what hope is there for other services?
The government does not recognise women’s unique needs in national mental health policy and strategy either. This is simply not good enough.
We are calling for, among other things, the soon to be appointed Mental Health Equalities Champion to have a focus on women’s mental health, we want a clinical lead for women in every mental health trust in the country and a strategy to take this forward. And we want women to be routinely and sensitively asked about their experience of violence and abuse when they come into contact with services and to receive proper support to overcome the trauma they have faced.
We will never eliminate violence against women and girls in the UK unless we actually recognise that it is happening and what its consequences are. There are a huge number of women in the country who have suffered the most extensive violence and abuse as both children and adults and they need urgent protection and proper support.