Trigger Warning: this article mentions mental health and suicide and may be distressing to some readers.
In Australia, around one in six women will experience depression in their lifetime, and one in three women will experience anxiety. Add that to postpartum depression affecting one in six woman during their first year after birth, with rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders being far more common in women than they are in men.
The statistics from The National Mental Health Commission are undoubtedly alarming. And while yes, there has been a shift in the conversation around mental health in recent years—whether it’s the downward trend in social stigma, or increased support services and initiatives currently being actioned by the government (more on that later), the crux of this issue remains—especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In some senses, it’s like women have been facing their own mental health pandemic. But how? Because for as long as history will tell us, we’ve been known for putting others first.
On September 8, 2022, Australia marks R U OK? Day. The non-profit suicide prevention organisation makes its mission clear: It’s a day to spark conversations we need to have. No matter how difficult, heavy or how awkward they may feel.
Now, the day is more important than ever.
After more than two years of living through a pandemic, lockdowns, and for some, the isolation that comes with an illness like Covid-19, it’s safe to say the mental health of women across Australia has been put to the ultimate test.
The pandemic’s knock-on effect on female dominated industries, including childhood education, health care and aged care has also been immense with job losses and hourly cuts made across the board—not to mention the mental load workers bear by trying to maintain an essential job when the system is stretched beyond its limit.
As we know, a job can mean everything to someone. It can give them a sense of identity and purpose, and when that’s taken away, or if the stress it involves becomes too much, the effect on our mental health can be debilitating.
But with or without jobs, mental health struggles can prompt us to revert back and focus on the things we can control as a coping mechanism. During the pandemic, that might translated to a mother who subconsciously becomes the one who looks after the kids, cooks dinner and does the washing while their husband works.
Or maybe it’s women who want to help their struggling peers—whether it’s doing the shopping for an elderly neighbour or frequently FaceTiming their friends who are in need instead of taking some time for themselves.
Maybe it’s any woman who feels pressured to go back to normality before they’re ready because her friends are or her colleagues are—even if she’s still fearful of catching Covid, the super flu or any other virus that’s flown around in 2022.
It all comes back to this notion that women often put others first. That can occur in so many different ways, and it’s truly a wonderful thing. But the cost of this can often be at the expense of our own mental health.
Per Beyond Blue, there are several major areas outside of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that can have a major impact on a woman’s mental health. They include (but are not limited to):
- Being a carer and supporting others
- Violence or abuse
- Discrimination based on sexual or gender identity
- Infertility and perinatal loss
- pregnancy and post-pregnancy
Of course, that list is only the surface of things that can trigger mental health issues in women. All of them are valid, and in all of them, you are not alone.
So what is being done in the mental health space in Australia? Both the Fifth National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan and Vision 2030 are aiming to integrate mental health services and prevention of suicide services across Australia, while the COVID-19 national health plan saw a $74 million cash injection into mental health resources.
But still, we have a long way to go.
Our leaders have also recognised that Australia “has a problem” in how women are treated with a culture that justifies gender inequality.
Last year, Indigenous leader Prof Marcia Langton called out the inefficacy of national initiatives to reduce violence against Aboriginal women, calling for local and regional plans instead.
In November 2021, a motion was moved for a parliamentary inquiry to look into the rates of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and children in Australia.
WA Greens senator, Dorinda Cox, who formerly worked as a police officer, said: “We’ve had horrific, extensive and unacceptable rates of violence against First Nations women and children in this country and the missing cases and reports of our women keep mounting.”
On August 31, 2022 a new study by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety also found more than half of Australian women in their 20s have experienced sexual violence, and research suggests the rates of abuse across the population are far higher than previously thought.
It’s confronting and concerning, but the message to those in power couldn’t be clearer: More needs to be done to support women in Australia, and especially for those who are struggling.
And as we continue to advocate for this, R U OK? Day serves an important reminder to continue doing our own bit: Ask your female friend (or any friend who might be struggling) if they’re okay. No one should have to go through their mental health struggles alone.