Women Get Short-Changed When It Comes To Mental Health Supports. Here’s How To Change That


I have no doubt that every single one of us knows someone who has suffered during COVID. Not just from the physical effects of the virus, but also from the mental fall-out of living through this pandemic.

Perhaps that someone may even be you.

If so, know that you are not alone. A recent survey by the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health (CAMH) reveals that the pandemic has had a hugely negative impact on the mental health of Canadians. In fact, 50% report worsening mental health sine COVID began. Many are struggling with uncertainty about the future, worries about the health of their loved ones, concerns about employment and finances and the social isolation that comes from quarantining and living behind a mask for more than two years. The mental health implications are expected to be long lasting — a recent poll found that seven out of 10 Ontarians believe that there will be a “serious mental health crisis” as a result of the pandemic.

While everyone — young and old — has suffered to some extent, women have faced unique challenges during this time. COVID has magnified the disproportionate burdens women face daily: lack of childcare, limited access to healthcare services, workplace inequities, physical abuse — the list goes on. Persistent gender roles mean women are still the ones who are largely responsible for childcare, home care and elder care, all of which affects their working lives and ability to take care of themselves.

Women’s mental health needs have always differed from those of men throughout their lifespan. PMS can start in the pre-teen years while during childbearing years women may require support for post-partum depression. Older women face higher rates of Alzheimer’s and are twice as likely as men to develop dementia, in part because they live longer. Women of all ages (but especially younger women) can struggle with eating disorders, which has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Women are twice as likely as men to have depression and anxiety and are also diagnosed more than men with seasonal affective disorder, panic disorders, PTSD and they make more suicide attempts.

Making matters worse is the fact that women’s mental health has historically been underfunded, under-diagnosed and under-researched.

Many treatments used today have not been equitably studied on women — even male lab mice can outnumber female mice five to one. As a result, we know so much less about female physiology than male physiology. At the same time, women in science face biases as they work to advance their careers.

Something must be done. We owe it to women and girls to address the barriers to mental health treatment that are preventing them from living life to its full potential.

How is this going to happen? Here’s one solution: support female scientists who are working on breakthrough treatments for women’s mental health.

New ways to reduce the gender gap in mental health

That’s exactly the mandate of CAMH’s womenmind, a community of thought leaders and donors who are committed to reducing the gender gap in mental health by funding the recruitment and advancement of female scientists, and thus supporting innovative discoveries in the field of women’s mental health. These scientists need sustained research investments in order to spur innovation, better translate scientific knowledge into practice and develop life-saving therapies.

Since launching in March 2020, just before the pandemic, womenmind has already achieved several significant milestones, including recruiting the first-ever womenmind family scientist specializing in women’s mental health, launching a seed funding competition with awards going to female researchers and creating the first-ever Family Chair in Women’s Mental Health in conjunction with the University of Toronto. womenmind plans to host an annual global research symposium, which will share leading-edge research, spur new collaborations, and help build an international community of experts in women’s mental health.

How to get our politicians involved in the movement

Eight-five percent of Canadians believe mental health services are among the most underfunded in the health care system, according to a survey reported in Benefits Canada magazine. And they’re right — while mental illness (including alcoholism and substance misuse) affects 6.7 million Canadians, or 20 percent of the population, Canada dedicates only 7 percent of its health care budget to mental health. This has resulted in a two-tier system where those who can afford to pay for private services from psychologists, social workers and addictions counsellors are able to access help whereas those who can’t are left to suffer.

Governments need to address this inequity. One of the ways to do that, according to a policy paper from CAMH, is to expand virtual (tele-health) mental health services, which make it easier for people, including those in remote areas, to access care. Another is for governments at all levels to help lift people out of poverty, which is strongly linked to poor mental health, by considering instituting a basic income guarantee. Investments in affordable housing are needed too— in 2012, there were over 520,000 people with mental illness who were inadequately housed across the country and among those almost 120,000 were homeless. “It is time for governments and decision-makers to continue to step up and make mental health a priority by investing in a long-term, system wide response,” reads the paper. “It is time to recognize that mental health is health.”

Are you struggling? Add these 4 steps to your day

1. Practice good mental health. Exercise, good nutrition and sleep are the cornerstones of good overall health, including mental health. Meditation and mindfulness have been proven to help people with depression and anxiety. CAMH offers a number of tools and resources to help you practice positive thinking and support your mental health, from grounding exercises that help you manage stress levels to a questionnaire that helps you challenge anxious thoughts.

2. Talk about it. When I was growing up, we knew my older brother David was sick, that there was something terribly wrong, but there was such a lack of support. Our family doctor put his behaviour down to being “rebellious.” My brother has schizophrenia and was not diagnosed until he was in his 20s and didn’t get the help he needed in the form of medications until he was in his 30s.

This was back in the ’70s, and it wasn’t like it is now. There was really so little help available and that affected his wellness tremendously. Not just him, but the entire family.  Today, thankfully, people are much more open about their mental health struggles, and that’s a good thing. It’s time to get rid of the stigma.

3. Get help. If you are suffering mentally, the single best thing you can do is talk to someone— a trusted friend or family member as well as your family physician. Only about 30% of people with a mental health problem seek help. Most people with depression need treatment to feel better. You don’t have to go it alone.  This CAMH resource offers advice on how and where to get help.

4. Work for change. Educate yourself on mental health problems and challenge the stigma that still exists around talking about mental health. Get involved with a mental health charity and take part in an event that raises funds and awareness. One such event is CAMH’s Sunrise Challenge, which invites Canadians to wake up with the sun for five days (May 30 to June 3) while raising money to support the ground breaking mental health research and suicide prevention initiatives happening at CAMH.

I’d also like to personally invite you to learn more about the womenmind community.  The world will be addressing the mental health implications of this pandemic for years to come, and women need to be leading the response. I believe womenmind will be at the forefront of this movement: hiring women researchers, developing mentorship programs for junior scientists, and helping to evolve women’s careers in the mental health world so that underrepresented people everywhere can get the care they need.

We know that mental health research saves lives. We know that mental health research will create happier and healthier lives for girls and women.

And isn’t that what we all want?

Sandi Treliving is a mental health advocate, philanthropist and founding funder of CAMH’s womenmind, a community of donors which supports female scientists working on ground-breaking research in women’s mental health. She is a director on the board of the CAMH Foundation.