AnxietyMental health services in England are not giving adequate consideration to the needs of female mental health service users, a charity has claimed.

Only one NHS Mental Health Trust, out of 35 that responded, had a women’s mental health strategy, according to the results of a Freedom on Information (FoI) request, released by Agenda, an alliance of more than 60 organisations which have come together to campaign for change for women and girls at risk. In every other trust, there was no strategy explicitly recognising women’s mental health needs.

In addition, 18 trusts that responded had no policy on ‘routine enquiry’ – the practice of routinely asking female patients about experience of abuse – which is contrary to National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines.

The vast majority of trusts had no policies on offering proactive support to patients who disclose abuse beyond meeting their safeguarding responsibilities. Only 5 services reported having a policy on actively offering female patients a choice of female care worker.

To coincide with the release of the results of the FoI, Agenda has launched its ‘Women in Mind’, campaign. Agenda is highlighting the risks to female patients from a lack of gender-awareness in mental health trusts. Previous research has revealed that men and women face different mental health problems, expressed in different ways and rooted in different gendered experiences. Women’s greater experiences of abuse, for example, are linked to higher rates of mental ill health. Women often need a female care worker or a female-only care settings to feel safe enough to open up in therapy. Women need counselling and expert staff who understand sexual and physical abuse and trauma.

Best practice guidelines and previous national strategies have also highlighted the need for a gender specific approach to mental health care for men and women.

Agenda is concerned that, by failing to consider the needs of women in service planning and delivery, mental health trusts are not meeting women’s needs.

Agenda is recommending:

The soon-to-be-appointed Mental Health Equalities Champion to have a focus on women’s mental health and champion a gender-focused approach across the treatment spectrum

A clinical lead for women’s mental health and a strategy in every local area, to take account of women’s needs. This includes the implementation of guidance on routine enquiry, the provision of gender-specific services, and including female patients in service design

Every female mental health patient to be asked about her experiences of abuse and violence as standard. This ‘routine enquiry’ should be accompanied by proper support for any abuse she has experienced

Dedicated, holistic women-only services for women with complex needs to be available in every area to provide a safe, therapeutic space for women to address their mental health needs and to open up about their experiences

Frontline NHS workers to receive training to understand that women's mental health, trauma and abuse are strongly linked, and services to work in a trauma-informed way. 

Katharine Sacks-Jones, director of Agenda, said: “Our mental health trusts are not adequately considering the needs of women.

“Too many women facing poor mental health bounce from crisis to crisis unable to get the help they need. The majority have experienced violence and abuse, and many report needing women-specific spaces to feel safe.

“That’s why we’re launching our Women in Mind campaign calling on government and local mental health trusts to ensure women’s needs are taken into account in mental health strategies and services. And we want to see every female mental health patient asked about her experiences of abuse and violence as standard.”

#womeninmind is calling for women’s needs, and in particular their experience of abuse and violence to be taken into account in policy, strategy and delivery.