It is officially a year on into the pandemic and from the UK’s first lockdown. The pandemic has highlighted a lot of issues within our society; one of the most striking issues that have been discussed at length during the pandemic has been the mental health crisis the UK is currently facing. The government response to this has, so far, been gender-neutral, but is this the best way?

Does the gender-neutral response to the mental health crisis one year into the pandemic need to change?

Agenda, an organisation for women and girls at risk, has conducted a report consisting of three waves of research and bringing in over 150 voluntary sector organisations supporting disadvantaged women and girls who all responded to three surveys in total.

The report, ‘Voices From Lockdown, a Way Forward For Women and Girls’, makes it abundantly clear that there is a stark and pressing mental health crisis currently underway that is very specific to women.

The findings from the last survey had some particularly concerning results:

  •  Three quarters (76%) of organisations reported demand for their services had increased from the first lockdown.
  • Over the course of one year, 100% of organisations reported the complexity of women and girls’ needs has increased.
  • 95% of organisations agreed that the pandemic has made existing mental health problems worse.
  • 77% of organisations said that they had struggled to meet the demand of mental health needs for women and girls they work with.
  • Half of the specialist ‘by and for’ Black and minoritised women’s services highlighted increased poverty and related needs among their service-users.

Agenda has warned that the mental health legacy of lockdown will be “profound and long-lasting” and have noted a particular increase in the complexity of the issues women and girls are facing.

Through financial instability, being forced to stay with abusive partners, difficulty in accessing help, this past year, women and girls have been pushed to the “sharpest end of inequality”.

Jessica Southgate, CEO of Agenda, has specifically addressed that the “demand and complexity of need has outstripped services capacity to deliver essential support”, noting that a combination of poverty, unemployment, high rates of domestic abuse have all led to a crisis in women’s and girls’ mental health.

The decline in women and girls’ mental health hasn’t happened all of a sudden, however. Although exacerbated by the pandemic, the signs of an oncoming mental health crisis have been identifiable for many years.

According to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), one in five women are likely to experience a problem with their mental health. MHF also stated that “From 2000 to 2014, rates of common mental health problems in England steadily increased in women and remained largely stable in men”.

In 2016, MHF reported that a World Health Organization study showed:

  • One in five women aged 16-25 reported recently self-harming.
  • Suicide rates in women were at their highest for a decade.

There are a number of factors that may have led to this worrying increase in reported mental health issues in women and girls. In the same 2016 study that MHF reported on, it was also found that suicide rates and self-harm rates were higher in minority and ethnic communities, and so racial inequality seems to be a huge factor in this over the last 10 years.

Women in the UK are more likely to live below the poverty line than men

Another factor is poverty. The WHO has reported that children and adults living in the lowest 20% income bracket in Great Britain are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest. As a result of women being more likely to be impoverished, a big percentage of those most affected by this correlation are women and girls.

Another factor is that women are much more likely to be exposed to sexual violence and therefore, more likely to suffer from trauma-related disorders, which lead to depression and anxiety.
According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales for 2017, 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault and or rape since the age of 16.

From a survey in 2011, NSPCC recorded that 31% of women in the UK have experienced sexual abuse in childhood.

Reading these statistics, it should really come as no surprise then that the environment of the pandemic – where women are being forced to stay inside and face up to memories from their past, or women who have been landed in poverty due to redundancies or furlough, or women who have been unable to escape abusive relationships as easily – has accelerated something that was already happening to the mental health of women and girls.

However, as of yet, the Government's response to the public's need for more spending on Mental Health services, more funding going into organisations has been lacking in any real understanding or perspective that this pandemic has inevitably uniquely affected women.

Alongside Agenda’s comprehensive report and findings, the numbers of call-ins to domestic abuse charities by women have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Refuge, who run a 24-hour helpline for victims of domestic abuse, reported a 60% increase in calls over the last year, of this 60% increase, 72% identified as women.

CEO of Agenda commented, “Our research shows anxiety, depression, and PTSD recorded at alarming rates, with existing mental health conditions further exacerbated by the economic and social impact of the pandemic. Girls and young women, and Black and minoritised women and girls, have been particularly hard hit.”

She continued, "The Government's response to the pandemic has been largely reactive and gender-neutral... We must build a social recovery that works for women, girls, their families and communities – otherwise, it will be our public services left to pick up the pieces."

Acknowledging the overwhelming evidence that Black and minority women are disproportionately affected by mental health in the UK, Agenda also spoke to a spokesperson from The Angelou Centre, a Black-led advocacy organisation with the aim of ending violence against Black and minoritised women and girls.

The spokesperson stated, "Some women's situations have worsened directly because of the pandemic, but for a lot of cases, what's actually happened is that Covid-19 shone a light on the challenges women face in a way that it wouldn't have before."

Here, this notion of the environment of the pandemic forcing women to focus on their difficulties with mental health and possible experiences of abuse or assault from their past comes up again.

In response to these findings, Agenda, along with over 70 other charities and organisations working with women and girls, are writing to PM Boris Johnson to demand a dedicated minister to lead in the social recovery of women and girls following the pandemic.

In conjunction with this, Agenda has outlined three key recommendations alongside the appointment of a Minister who will facilitate cross-departmental strategy; these are as follows:

  •  An implementation action plan for 2021-23 to address the needs of the most disadvantaged women and girls, with commitments across government departments.
  •  Committed funding, including for specialist community women’s and girls’ services.
  • Steps to address inequality and reverse the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on those hardest hit, including young women and Black and minoritised women and girls.

Given that this report and survey was conducted before the current outpouring of shared trauma and distress following the disappearance and subsequent murder of Sarah Everard, one could argue that now more than ever, the recommendations made by Agenda in this report are of huge importance.

The evidence speaks for itself. It is clear action needs to take place now to prevent any more vulnerable women and girls from falling through the cracks.