On September 9, 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.
This year, the day is more important than ever.
After 18 months of living through lockdowns, lifted lockdowns, then extra lockdowns, it's safe to say the mental health of women across Australia has been put to the ultimate test.
Back in August, Equal Pay Day highlighted the alarming disparity between a woman and a man's pay cheque in Australia. Rising to 14.2 per cent over a six month period (that's a difference of $261.50 a week, FYI), the growing gap was part a consequence to the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw female dominated professions including childhood education, health care and aged care experiencing job losses and hourly cuts.
A knock on effect from these cuts? Well, a job can be everything. It can bring a sense of identity and purpose. When that's taken away, 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. In the middle of a pandemic, that might translate 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.
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.
At this week's Women's Safety Summit, Prime Minister Scott Morrison admitted that Australia "has a problem" in how women are treated with a culture that justifies gender inequality. But as former Liberal Staffer Brittany Higgins called out, actions speak louder than words: "I just can’t match this Government’s actions with the platitudes and warm sentiments they are all extending today," she penned on Twitter.
At that same summit, 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.
"They talk over the top of us. They tell us what we are going to have in our communities and no one listens to the women in the communities, the women in the towns, the women in the suburbs who have to deal with all the young women, and older women and children fleeing from violence," she said.
There's also issues that have arisen from the bungled vaccine roll out—pregnant women were finally listed as a priority group for the Pfizer vaccine, but when going to book, appointments were not available for months—this understandably sparked distress among expectant mothers.
"I'm stressed, anxious, not sleeping, having a lot of anxiety daily, not wanting to go anywhere in fear of catching COVID and ending up in ICU," one mother told the ABC.
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 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.