The Blog

Closing Women's Psychiatric Services Is Sexism in Action: The Beds in the Orchard Campaign

The battle to save one psychiatric ward for women in one NHS Trust is one all feminists must support. We cannot allow services to women disappear without a fight. The closure of the ward for women demonstrates everything that is wrong with an NHS that is not patient-led.

The Orchard hospital in Lancaster has closed their psychiatric inpatient provision for women without any consultation with local service users or the wider community.

In the current climate, one hospital closing one small ward no longer feels important enough for media coverage. The decimation of the NHS has continued unabated with little thought to those who depend on the NHS for their survival - never mind fancy things like getting a cast on a broken leg.

There are two very troubling aspects to this particular closure. The first is the Trust, having recently closed a male psychiatric ward, rectified their lack of beds for men by giving them the 6 beds set aside specifically for women and the two "swing beds" which were normally used by women at The Orchard.

A new 'Super Hospital' that will care for men and women is due to open in Blackpool in Spring 2015, but despite the fact that the women's unit at Orchard Hospital was at full capacity, until that new hospital opens local provision for women in North Lancashire doesn't appear to be in the plans. We have yet to see plans to replace or increase provision for women. Until now, women from the Lancaster district had been sent out of their local area due to bed shortages, but they were returned the moment a bed came free locally. Now women are being separated from their families, friends, and their support networks for extended periods of time - not just a few days, but months.

So, why is it more acceptable to send women out of area than men? Why are women deemed less deserving of inpatient access within their local area? We know why - as Glosswitch made clear:

(women are) sold out because male human beings are a threat to female human beings, and because no one will admit this or do anything about it until resources are scarce and - whoops! - there goes your refuge, hospital bed, or safe space. Wherever possible, it is expected that women will bear the cost of unchecked male dominance. This cannot continue. We need to count the true cost of what men do, not just in pounds and pence, but in crumbling social structures, empty beds and ruined lives.

"Protecting" vulnerable women is the go-to excuse for any organisation caught failing to appropriately assess women's needs.

Misogyny and a complete refusal to acknowledge the specific needs of women in the mental health services are the reasons why the Orchard Hospital closed the women's ward.

There is another, equally problematic, reason. It is much easier to close a psychiatric ward to save money than it is to close another specialist word - due solely to the stigma around mental health. It is easy to get up public support to protest the closure of a maternity ward or a cardiac care unit. The press loves articles featuring new mothers or a woman in an M&S wrap dress and beige heels campaigning to save their local cardiac ward. They are far less likely to run articles about the closure of psychiatric units or mental health services simply because it is difficult to find people willing to expose themselves to the public abuse which follows disclosures of mental health.

The Beds in the Orchard Campaign has support from many of their local service users but they all have the same fears if they speak out:

Will they still be able to access support from the volunteers, go to the hospital cafe or to the groups run by Trust staff in the local community? Will they be punished by the Trust by being sent out of area even if the beds are re-opened? Will the Crisis team, who act as gatekeepers for the beds, be reluctant to admit them?

For the service users who look to mental health services for support due to prejudice and discrimination of mental health elsewhere, these fears are real and must be acknowledged. This discrimination is magnified for women who worry about the stigma for their children and, in a society that has little real support for women who do not have the added barrier of mental illness, fears for maintaining custody of their children, employment and the potential of poverty.

These women often have less emotional energy and time to campaign because of all their other caring commitments. And, NHS Trusts know this. It is not at all surprising that the only contact the Beds in Orchard campaign has had with their local trust were a series of 5 tweets more than a week ago. Or, that the one radio interview with a member of the campaign and a representative of the Trust resulted in misinformation being spread. The Trust claimed that families of women being sent out of area receive help with transport costs. This is manifestly untrue and the cost of travel is one of the most important barriers to supporting family and friends who are hospitalised due to mental illness.

The battle to save one psychiatric ward for women in one NHS Trust is one all feminists must support. We cannot allow services to women disappear without a fight. The closure of the ward for women demonstrates everything that is wrong with an NHS that is not patient-led.

We know that the best outcome for women with mental illness is to be close to their support networks of family and friends within their local community whilst in hospital, followed by long-term support to prevent further hospitalisations. The decision by the Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust is not only based on sexist assumptions about women's health; it ignores the long-term financial consequences for failing to support women back into employment.

The Lancashire Trust needs to reopen the psychiatric ward for women now. Then, they need to sit down with service users and actively listen to what service users actually need rather than making assumptions based on sexism.