Visible Women

Meet the woman determined to improve female mental health services in the UK

Posted by
Moya Crockett
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Stylist’s Woman of the Week is Joyce Kallevik, the director of Wish, the UK’s only national, user-led charity for women with mental health needs. 

In recent years, a lot of attention has – rightly – been paid to the subject of male mental health, and the ways in which traditional stiff-upper-lip ideals can damage men’s psychological wellbeing. But it’s not just men whose experience of mental health is heavily influenced by their gender. For many women with mental health issues, their femaleness is an inextricable part of their story.

For a start, there are the underlying factors that can create or exacerbate mental health problems. Abuse is at the bottom of many women’s serious mental health issues: research by UCL and King’s College London shows that women with severe mental illnesses are up to five times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault, with 40% having suffered rape or attempted rape in adulthood, and two to three times more likely to suffer domestic violence. A study published earlier this year, meanwhile, showed that a staggering 80% of teenage girls suffer from serious mental illness following sexual assault.

“The causes of mental ill health are different for men and women,” explains Joyce Kallevik, the director of Wish, the UK’s only national, user-led charity working with women with mental health needs in prison, hospital and the wider community. “Services need to be gender-specific.”

Through Wish, Kallevik recently launched the Women’s Mental Health Network, a project that seeks to give women with mental health issues in the UK a say in how services are run. The network aims to improve women’s experience of statutory mental health services, including hospitals, housing, social services and prisons, by making those services more aware of how someone’s gender might affect their mental health needs. 

Joyce Kallevik, national director of Wish and the Women's Mental Health Network

Joyce Kallevik: women with mental health problems are “silenced by the system”

Currently, mental health services tend to be “designed by men, for men”, Kallevik says. “I’ve been to a couple of meetings recently and I thought, these people know nothing about women, yet they’re making policy or developing strategy. That’s quite scary.”

There are endless examples of women being provided with mental health support that isn’t appropriate for their gender and experiences: being offered appointments with a male psychiatrist when they are struggling with issues related to childhood abuse or rape, for example. Kallevik cites the example of women in prison, who are five times more likely to have a mental health problem than women in the general population, or women staying in secure mental health units.

These women will often be observed by male staff, she says, who they may hear “walking along the corridor, looking into their bedrooms through a peephole, night after night”. For women who have experienced sexual abuse or domestic violence, “you can imagine the impact that has in terms of re-traumatisation”.

Then there’s the fact that many women are “not taken seriously” when they present with mental health problems, Kallevik continues. “They’re not believed, their experience isn’t validated, and they’re silenced by the system.”

One woman she knows was taken to A&E after attempting suicide, and was told by a medical professional: ‘Well, if you really meant to do it, you would have succeeded.’ “It’s a complete lack of respect.” 

Often, mental health services are not set up to specifically support women 

The Women’s Mental Health Network hopes to change this by consulting with thousands of women with real experience of the mental health and/or criminal justice systems, and asking them how they would like things to change. The women’s testimonies will then be used to advise different services on how they can provide better support for women with mental health needs.

“We want to empower women who have been on the margins of society,” says Kallevik. Women who have been disenfranchised – as a result of their mental health needs as well as other intersecting factors such as their class, race and gender – can be “an integral part of something powerful”, if they’re just given the chance to speak up.

Kallevik has worked in the mental health and disability movements for her entire career, first as a researcher at the University of Oxford and then as a consultant advising the statutory and voluntary sector on issues including disability, poverty, homelessness and HIV/AIDS. Where does her commitment to this kind of work come from?

“I think I’ve got a very strong sense of justice,” she says. “I’m from a working-class Liverpool background, and Liverpudlians are known to be very feisty. I’ve also lived in various places that have made me realise the disparity between the haves and have-nots, whatever spectrum that’s on.”

Ultimately, Kallevik hopes the work of the Women’s Mental Health Network will make people realise that “change isn’t that difficult”.

“Once people understand that, we can move forward one step at a time,” she says. “Eventually, we’ll have better mental health services for women – and then women will have less need of services.”

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Courtesy of Wish / Getty Images