There’s a lot going on at the moment in the world of women’s health and mental health.
In July, the UK government finally published its ‘Women’s Health Strategy for England’ and appointed Dame Lesley Regan as the first Women’s Health Ambassador. A huge step forward in how we approach and look after women’s health and mental health.
In my world and work however, I am seeing a concerning narrative building that we need to focus hard on men’s mental health. That we need to get men to talk about their mental health, that mental health at work is about leadership and men showing vulnerability, and that we need to get more men to engage…
Moving women’s health mainstream
This is of course all true. We do need to do these things. Why it concerns me though is that I am seeing that this narrative is making men’s mental health the default, and women’s health and mental health the niche or ‘the bit on the side’. As with the rest of life.
The fact is that women have higher rates of common mental illnesses than men. They show different symptoms in illnesses such as bipolar and schizophrenia, and have mental illnesses that men don’t such including premenstrual dysphoric disorder, postnatal depression and perimenopausal depression. As Lucy Foulkes references in her book “What Mental Illness Really Is… (and what it isn’t), young women also have the fastest growing suicide rates.
Women also have higher rates of chronic illness and autoimmune diseases, lower survival rates than men for heart attacks, and less positive interactions with health providers. Globally approximately 1% of healthcare research and innovation is invested in female-specific conditions beyond oncology, despite women making up 52% of the global population.
I have spent this month thinking about the cause of all of this. Health and mental health is a construct of chemical, hormonal, physical, emotional and societal factors, all interacting to create how healthy or mentally healthy we are.
In a patriarchal world women have for centuries been treated as second class citizens. We still are. I strongly believe that the higher rates of mental and chronic illnesses in women (as well as being due to how healthcare is structured) is due to women’s bodies and brains reacting to living and being in a patriarchal society. Having to work harder, fighting for the same rights, direct and indirect discrimination, fear of attack whilst walking down the road.
This societal aspect of living impacts health and our bodies directly through the chemicals we release, how our nervous systems work and how functional our immune systems are.
I had the absolute pleasure of taking my 8 year daughter to Wembley last weekend to see the Lionnesses win. A once in a lifetime opportunity. I can’t put into words the energy of 87,192 people (predominantly families) reacting to the England goals or singing ‘It’s coming home’ at the end, knowing that England had won and that it was. I am getting goosebumps as I write this.
Change for the better
Why this mattered so much to me to be there with my daughter is that this was the best opportunity I could have given her of female role models. To see women win. To know that their win was after decades of women footballers having to fight to be seen and to play. Barriers that male footballers have never had. That it was so deserved. And that matters.
Because if the higher rates of women’s mental illness and chronic illness we see are women’s bodies reacting to living in this world, then our daughters seeing women win, will hopefully mean that things change. That these rates come down. And that the work starting in government means that women’s health and mental health is no longer a niche.
About the author
This article is an extract from Amy McKeown’s newsletter. Amy is an award-winning health, mental health and wellbeing consultant. She coaches organisations of all sizes to build strategies with are both innovative and measurable, whilst providing unique expertise in implementing said strategies. Amy is also a respected thought-leader within her field, sharing her advice regularly on LinkedIn and at speaker events such as MAD World and The Watercooler.
Amy will be leading discussion around the issues raised in this article during some of her Autumn masterclasses. You can find out more at www.amymckeown.com and catch up with Amy’s previous masterclasses here.