As far as statistics can be relied on to confirm any fact these days, it seems that a growing number of young women are showing the symptoms of serious mental health problems in Britain. More than a quarter (26%) of women aged 16 - 24 in a recent NHS survey report experiencing anxiety, depression, panic disorder, phobia or obsessive compulsive disorder. Specific measures show that certain conditions such as self-harm have trebled between 2007 and 2014 to 19.7% in this age group. Across all ages, women are 40% more likely to suffer mental health issues than their male counterparts.
Almost as disheartening as the bleak picture painted by these figures is the inadequate response to analysing and dealing with the challenge they present. This was embodied by the majority of the panellists at a recent 5 x 15 event on Women and Anxiety with the notable exception of psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach who knows a thing or two about feminism. The tendency amongst these young professional women to internalise and treat anxiety as a personal issue rather than turning outward to pin down and deal with its multiple and complex causes in our society today is surely another reason why it is worsening. Self-help and mindfulness are substituting for righteous anger and resistance to the conditions that are making young women feel inadequate, frightened and out of control: whether it is the wholesale sexualisation of women's bodies in advertising and the media, the continuous spotlight on self-image provided by social media or the rampant sexism that disempowers women in education, in work and in our (so-called) representative democracy.
It seems that consumerism has now comprehensively co-opted the self in this area as in all others. Anxiety seems to be a catch all for conditions that make us ever more needy and susceptible to the growing array of 'cures' on the market -from pharmaceuticals to retreat holidays and courses of all kinds. And whilst self-reflection is undoubtedly of value to us all (although notably not something much practised by those in power) the overwhelming pressure to take on authorship of your own mental health problems and solve them is only adding to the pressure to perform. We need a pendulum swing so that young women can see that the personal is political. Their problems are not isolated - they need to know that only together can we change the structural inequalities that result in women disproportionately experiencing mental health issues. This is not a new refrain, being one of the key mottos of the second wave feminists in the 1970s - but it is something that many have lost sight of due to the emphasis on individual solutions rather than using the power of the collective in so many aspects of our lives. Nor does it mean that men are excluded. All young people are clearly increasingly at risk, but if we can analyse, tackle and solve the issue for young women and girls, then it follows that the pressures on young men are likely to be diminished too. The role of social media which is clearly an amplifier of so many of the problems being experienced must be better understood and used to the benefit of all, rather than as seems to be the case now, the detriment of so many.
My call is for anxiety to be claimed as a feminist issue and dealt with at a political level. The Women's Equality Party (WEP) exists to give all women's issues a political voice in order to accelerate and effect long overdue changes that will bring genuine equality. We have recently added equal healthcare as a new objective - since all too often women's health has been less researched and invested in, with mental health being a case in point. And we continue to campaign on issues that we should all be concerned about - women are still paid less for equal work; bear the brunt of the caring burden for children and the elderly and are under-represented at the senior level of all the institutions that shape our world.
The 65,000 people who have joined WEP in less than two years bear testimony to how urgent the need for change on all these fronts has become. Now is the time to reach out to young women affected by mental health issues and invite them to work with us to transform the underlying unhelpful and outmoded structures that result in them trying to solve these wider problems by fixing themselves. We are working to create a new kind of feminism - Feminism 5.0 - which is based on engaging with and activating women across all groups, ages and issues. Rather than suffer alone and accept these damaging conditions as your fault, now is the time to participate and help shape policies and practices that will help all women lead better, more equal and consequently less anxious lives.
Melanie Howard stood as a candidate for the Women's Equality Party in the GLA Election in 2016. For more information about Feminism 5.0 click here.
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