LISTEN: Why women's mental health treatment needs reviewing

HOW much do you think our hormones have to do with mental health issues?

Listening to a podcast on the weekend, my mind was given some great food for thought on this issue.

The podcast, while published a year ago, would still have much relevance in the Australian mental health system.

When Mariska tells her story about battling Bipolar Disorder post giving birth to her first baby, I was astounded to hear the conditions she was forced to stay in while receiving 'treatment' in a public hospital.

As someone who has battled depression and anxiety for 20+ years and PTSD for the past five of those, there had been occasions where I considered admitting myself in mental health units as I was on the edge of cutting myself or suicidal.

But when Mariska described staying in a place where there were no doors on the room she slept in, the majority of nursing staff were male and these staff members would watch her undress or shower, I was so angry that this was happening in Australia that I wanted to attack something (luckily I was hiking at the time so if I did act out, there were a few trees around to kick or punch).

This poor woman was struggling with Bipolar, having to be away from her newborn child due to her mental health problems, told be staff she could only see her baby if she behaved, suffered from the physical problems of having started off breastfeeding and then having to stop suddenly (ouch!) and had her privacy violate by male staff watching her naked.

I do hope the Australian system is working to change all of that.

When you go to a mental health unit, you should be able to feel safe and secure. Not a prisoner with no rights.

But it wasn't just Mariska's story that got my mind ticking over about women and mental health.

There was also the link between hormones and mental health found in women going through menopause (not surprising) and then there was the link between schizophrenia, hormones and men!

For a long time now we've seen gender differences in the course and outcomes of people with this mental illness. We've known for a long time that men tend to experience or develop schizophrenia from an earlier age. Their symptoms tend to be worse and not as responsive to antipsychotic medication. So that sort of led to the oestrogen hypothesis, if you like, which then has led to using oestrogens and hormone treatments as an adjunct treatment for these illnesses, for both men and women. We figure if oestrogen is helping, we know that it's neuroprotective, that we can gain an improvement in men, not only women.

Dr Jasmin Grigg, a postdoc at MAPrc (Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre)

I think that if we don't focus on the gender of the patient, we are actually doing her a great disservice because we find that in fact sometimes the treatment modalities and the understanding of illnesses are tailored around the classic patient being a male patient, and this does lead to greater problems for women getting the best outcomes. I am not by any means saying that women are suffering worse than men, but I think both groups can actually be afforded a better outcome if we focus on the gender as one of the factors that is impacting on their mental ill health.

Professor Jayashri Kulkarni is director of the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre

Humans have come a long way in understanding how the mind works, but it clearly has a long way to go.

And from listening to this podcast, I can't help but feel our understanding of women's experiencing with mental health needs a lot more research and providing of facilities where female patients can feel safe.

It also sounds like GPs looking after female patients with mental health problems should probably suggest mapping their hormone levels throughout their menstrual cycles to see if hormones are playing a role in the battle.

If, or maybe I should say when (as it appears to be inevitable in the fight against depression, anxiety and PTSD) that I will crash again back to those really low periods of wanting to self-harm or have suicidal tendencies, I doubt I will bother considering admitting myself to a public hospital's mental health facility. Not at least until I'm shown one that is conscious of the needs of women.

For more podcasts by All in The Mind, click here: Radio National's All in the Mind podcasts

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