OPEN's Contribution to the Women's Health Strategy (England) Call for Evidence

Written by Catherine Negus (Research Officer)

Several weeks ago on the International Day of Action on Women's Health we asked those of our OPEN members who are women living in England to tell us about your views and experiences, to inform our submission to the government’s Women’s Health Strategy (England) Call for Evidence. 

Here are the reflections of our Research Officer, Catherine Negus, who analysed your responses. 

We wanted to amplify the voices of women who are interested in good mental health for all, drawing out detail which might be lost in the government’s own general consultation survey.

OPEN was less than two months old, but we received an amazing 174 responses. This really shows the power of the network to rapidly draw on expertise from people around the country. Your rich insights formed the bulk of our submission to the Call for Evidence. They show the government that many women care passionately about the protection of mental health.

As a female researcher, analysing your responses made me take a step back to think about how gendered experiences have had an impact in my own life. It struck me that these experiences may affect the wellbeing of a huge portion of the population – but that society may take them for granted as part of being a woman.

I could feel a real sense of pressure in many of your responses. We asked which life experiences have made it harder to maintain good mental health, and the overwhelming majority of you ticked at least one. 71% ticked five or more. We asked how you thought your experience of mental health is affected by being a woman it was clear that it is often the combination of pressures which becomes unmanageable.

The pressures which impact most on ;individual women vary, and interact with other forms of inequality. However, it was striking that relationship issues had had a negative impact on the mental health of 61% of you, stress at work also on 61%, and body image on 60% - clearly some challenges are very widespread. Other issues are not niche concerns either: financial pressures had affected 44%, housing issues 18%, and violence or abuse a shocking 35%.

It also emerged that many women don’t feel that your mental health, or the impact of your experiences on your mental health, is always taken seriously. Some of the nuances within this theme felt almost contradictory, perhaps reflecting double standards or the different experiences of individual respondents. Some of you felt that women are expected to ‘just get on’ and be able to cope with many stressors. Others thought that women are seen as weak or oversensitive, and not taken seriously as a result.

Another important theme was the interaction between physical and mental health. 90% of you said that your physical health affects your mental health a lot or somewhat. Most frequently mentioned were menstruation, menopause, physical health conditions, and pregnancy/the year after giving birth. Yet several women mentioned lack of attention by healthcare providers to female-specific issues (such as menstruation or childbirth) impacting on your mental health.

We were really pleased to hear from women of different sexualities and ethnicities. 12% of the respondents were from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds, but we hope to increase this representation a little further in line with the population of the UK. The majority of respondents were aged 30-59 – so we will be alert for ways to listen more to older and younger women.

Overall, this survey was a strong demonstration of OPEN’s ability to highlight experiences which are important to real people, and need to be recognised by those developing care and strategy. By reflecting on these topics – as survey respondents or as the person analysing the results! – I think we can also deepen our own understanding of our mental health in a powerful way.

Since we wrote our submission, we were excited to hear that the survey findings were mentioned by Baroness Bull during a House of Lords debate on ‘Improving Women’s Health Outcomes’ on 8 July. You are really helping us to take our impact to the next level!