Women, gender and mental health : Moving out of the shadows

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The federal government recently announced the establishment of a Mental Health Commission (March 2007), and the plan to develop a Mental Health Strategy for Canada. This has created an important opportunity for us all to make sure that women’s and girls’ mental health issues, challenges and experiences are part of the national agenda, and that a gender lens will be used to inform the overall work of the Commission.

To this end, the Canadian Women’s Health Network (CWHN) held a national workshop in Ottawa in October 2007 to bring together researchers, community-based service providers and educators, non-governmental organizations and policy makers interested and active in gender-based and women’s mental health issues to explore the mandate of the newly formed Commission, and to establish strategies for ensuring women are not left out of the picture. The workshop was made possible with support from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) and Carleton University.

The workshop convened by CWHN comes a full 20 years after the release of the Canadian Mental Health Association landmark report, Women and Mental Health in Canada: Strategies for Change (April 1987), and almost 15 years after a federal/provincial/territorial Working Group on Women’s Health released its report, Working Together for Women’s Mental Health: A Framework for the Development of Policies and Programs (March 1993), which includes mental health as a key focus. Participants at the workshop built on these still-relevant documents, as well as more recent research completed by the Ad-hoc Working Group on Women, Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addiction, established in 2006 by the CWHN.

This more recent Working Group was convened by CWHN to respond to a report from the Senate committee chaired by Senator Michael Kirby, Out of the Shadows at Last, which largely kept women’s mental health concerns “in the shadows.”  In 2006, the Working Group submitted a formal written response to the Senate, entitled, “Women, Mental Health and Mental Illness and Addiction in Canada: An Overview,” highlighting the importance of sex- and gender-based analysis (SGBA) for any accurate and comprehensive understanding of mental health issues in Canada.

Workshop participants met to make sure that all of this important research on women’s mental health concerns – only a small sample of more than two decades worth – would not be left out of the work of the current Commission. To set the stage, the workshop began with an overview of the Kirby Senate report on mental health by Dr. Marina Morrow from the BC Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, highlighting the lack of SGBA and the significant gaps regarding women’s and girls’ mental health in the report.

Workshop participants also heard from Dr. Howard Chodos, a representative of the newly formed Mental Health Commission, and Madeleine Dion Stout, co-chair of the Commission Board of Directors and one of the founding members of the Aboriginal Women’s Health and Healing Research Group (AWWHRG). Participants also held breakout discussion groups to brainstorm on specific concerns, such as the Commission’s proposed anti-stigma campaign, as well as the links between mental health issues and youth, the effects of violence and trauma, and workplace/workforce mental health issues.

Many workshop participants committed to working together in the future to produce written submissions to the Commission, and develop further strategies for making SGBA and women’s health central pillars of the Commission’s on-going work. The Canadian Women’s Health Network agreed to coordinate initiatives resulting from the workshop, and we are currently in the process of collecting reports and information about innovative, gender-conscious mental health programs, as well as developing a national working group on Gender, Women and Mental Health to respond to the on-going work of the Commission.

Stay tuned for more on this topic, by visiting www.cwhn.ca or contact: 1-888-818-9172.

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