Mental health of women in crisis

According to survey of 2,000 girls and women, around two-thirds have had mild to moderate mental health problems

Almost a third of women aged over 18 have taken antidepressants, according to research published today which its authors claim reveals "generations of women in crisis" with mental health problems.

According to a survey of more than 2,000 girls and women in England and Wales, around two-thirds have had mild to moderate mental health problems, equivalent to 15.2 million girls and women.

Penny Newman, chief executive of Platform 51 (formerly the Young Women's Christian Association), said: "Millions of girls and women are facing mental health problems and they are telling us that they are not getting the support they need."

She added: "Our study reveals generations of women in crisis women are often the linchpins of their families and their communities, and if three in five of them aren't meeting their potential, they lose out, their family and friends lose out and so does the wider society."

At least 13% of women experiencing mental health problems had quit a job while 44% had taken some time off work; more than a quarter had been off work for at least a week, the research showed.

The findings into the extent of mental health problems experienced by girls as young as 12 were reached after the group expanded the medical definition of "common mental health disorders" as defined by the Department of Health.

The definition of mental health problems used in the new study includes low self-esteem, poor self-confidence, and stress.

"This term captures the range of feelings and symptoms which negatively impact on girls' and women's mental health and which can have more serious consequences if undetected or unaddressed," said Newman.

"What is most striking about these behaviours is that they are often self-destructive and hidden."

About 20% of adult women in England suffered from a common mental disorder typically depression or anxiety compared with about 12% of men, according to an NHS report last year.

Professor Louise Howard, head of women's mental health at King's College London, said the figures were "very interesting and relevant". She said: "There is evidence that there is under-identification of people with mental health problems that need treatment."

The research includes women with emotional difficulties as well as those with mental health problems, she added. "But any of the stresses that these women are reporting can lead to mental health problems. Depressive symptoms can persist and need treatment but some women will feel that they have to keep on coping because they have all these people depending on them."

Platform 51 works with 11,000 girls and women in schools, community centres, youth clubs, mother and baby units, and prisons across England and Wales. Its study found those they identified as having mental health problems attempt to cope with their distress in damaging ways. More than a quarter regularly drink too much and many isolate themselves from friends and family: almost a half had not left their homes for a long period and more than a quarter had lost friends.

One in five had built up debt. One in 10 had self-harmed a figure that rises to 35% for women aged 18 to 24.

"Many women appear to be functioning normally or coping adequately with particularly difficult situations when in fact they are struggling to cope," said Newman. "But we identified many risky behaviours that girls and women engaged in as a result of mental health problems, including promiscuity, drug-taking and crime."

Almost 30% of women polled had been emotionally or physically abused one in four of whom admitted having felt suicidal as a result.

But around one in three women with low-level mental health problems have never sought professional help, the report, "Women Like Me: supporting wellbeing in girls and women", found. Of those who did seek help, almost two thirds felt doctors were too ready to prescribe drugs.

The report has been welcomed by mental health groups. "Mental disorders amongst middle-aged women have been on the rise in the last two decades. They are now the group most at risk of mild to moderate mental health problems," said Simon Lawton-Smith, of the Mental Health Foundation. "However, this new research suggests the problem could be even more widespread across age groups."

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity SANE, said: "This survey is shocking and covers a myriad of distress."

Colin Walker, policy and campaigns manager at mental health charity Mind, welcomed the report but said his organisation's research showed men and women experienced mental health problems such as depression and anxiety in roughly equal numbers.

"But men are less likely to speak out or ask for help," he said. "This tendency to suffer in silence is reflected by the fact that men account for 75% of all suicides."

Depression is expected to become the world's second biggest health problem after heart disease by 2020, according to the World Health Organisation.