Gender equality and mental health: Despite progress, still much to be done

Parliament wants to promote an 'all of society' approach to mental health, explains Julie Ward.

Julie Ward | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Julie Ward

Julie Ward is a former MEP (UK, S&D) who was an active member of the parliament’s Disability Intergroup

08 Dec 2016

There are few concepts that are so poorly understood in western culture as mental health and wellbeing. Our societies have been excellent at improving our physical health and extending our life expectancy, but mental health has always been subjected to stigma and prejudice. 

Historically, this has especially applied to women. Eccentric women were labelled as witches and burnt. A woman's alleged "emotional instability" was attributed to the uterus travelling around the body, and this is where the word "hysteria" comes from.

Thank goodness we have made significant progress, with conversations about mental wellbeing at work, and many people attending mindfulness, yoga classes and similar therapeutic activities. However, there is still much to be done, not least in respect of gendered aspects of mental health and wellbeing. 


Women and girls face much greater negative mental health determinants, such as media messaging on self-image and objectification, as well as sexual violence and harassment. Women are twice as likely to experience depression and anxiety as men. On the other hand, men and boys' mental health is also affected by gender stereotypes, leading to a repression of emotions and feelings. Men are three times more likely to commit suicide or develop alcohol and drug addictions. 

Policymakers now understand that mental health and wellbeing requires a social, or "psychosocial" approach, taking into account the social, cultural and environmental factors that determine and affect mental health. This is the international agenda that the World Health Organisation has sought to drive.

The European Commission launched the joint action plan on mental health and wellbeing in 2013, coordinating action between stakeholders and member states, to push a community-based approach to mental health, promoted in schools, work places, and online, and aiming to tackle depression and suicide as priorities. The EU mental health compass serves as a platform for sharing best practice, and bringing stakeholders together in the field. 

I have been working as the Socialist & Democrat shadow rapporteur on gender equality in mental health and clinical trials, which has progressed through the women's rights and gender equality committee, and is due to be voted on in plenary in January 2017.

We have worked closely with MEPs from across political groups, with a strong call to the Commission and member states to follow up the action plan with an ambitious comprehensive strategy that has gender equality as its heart. Here are some of the key points we have focused on:

We want to promote the psycho-social, 'all of society' approach to mental health, and emphasise the fact that our socio-economic environment affects and determines our mental wellbeing, and that especially includes economic inequalities and social exclusion. 

This allows us to tackle the negative impact gender inequalities have on mental wellbeing for women and girls, recognising the way in which austerity impacts women disproportionately as they bear the brunt of public service cuts, precarious work and job insecurity. 

Those who face poverty and social exclusion are much more likely to see their mental wellbeing deteriorate, and often do not have access to mental health services. I have also advocated a social care model, whereby arts, sports and cultural activities are used as an intervention, prevention, support and rehabilitation mechanism for those who suffer from mental health conditions

We must take a lifespan approach, which takes into account the need to address the mental health and wellbeing needs of people across ages with tailored policies and a focus on work-life balance. This lifespan approach includes a specific focus on children and young people, but also on older people and pensioners.

We also need to promote education at all levels regarding mental health and wellbeing in order to challenge stereotypes around mental health, both in formal and informal learning, by sharing best practice, and challenging stigmatisation. 

This is a crucial step on the route to a healthier society where issues of mental wellbeing can be discussed and debated out in the open, and those who suffer from mental health conditions are not marginalised. 

There is a need to address the impact of emerging technologies and the internet on mental health, particularly on women and girls. How do we behave and respond to social media? Does our social media culture increase the objectification of women? How do we address cyber-bullying? And how can we use ICT as a positive force for wellbeing, e.g. peer support, online forums, combating rural and social isolation, providing a platform for expression, a source of information.

I am glad for all the cross-party work we have been able to do on this important subject, and I look forward to the report being adopted. I hope to continue the conversation with stakeholders here in Brussels and on the ground in the UK, as well as with the Commission. With so much uncertainty and upheaval in the world, we all need to take care of our mental wellbeing.