A number of studies on women’s health have demonstrated strong links between health status and socioeconomic factors affecting women. Limited participation in public life, restricted decision-making, devalued role expectations, poverty, violence and sexual abuse encumber the potential for mental well-being. Social and economic stresses, coupled with the inequitable burdens imposed by role expectations, often have a negative impact on women’s health, happiness and potential for personal fulfillment and achievement.
The health care system has often neglected the concerns of women, and traditionally women have had very little control over their own medical treatment, both for emotional and physical problems. Diagnostic categories, like many mental health classifications and theories created by men, have tended to locate the difficulties of women within the individual and to label women’s behaviour in devaluing ways. Women are much more likely than men to be diagnosed as suffering from depression, anorexia, bulimia, agoraphobia, anxiety and psychosomatic problems. All of these are closely associated with feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and lack of control. Moreover, many health concerns pertaining to issues of childbirth, pregnancy, menstruation and menopause have been mislabeled as disease phenomena endemic to a woman’s natural cycle. Informed by a commitment to social change and community action which over time will contribute to the emotional strength and autonomy of women as individuals and in society, the National Board of Directors of the Canadian Mental Health Association has endorsed the following recommendations.
- Services to women must be based on the fundamental principle that a woman’s mind and body belong to her. Full reproductive choice and choices about medical intervention and about sexuality are the right of every woman. Under the Canada Health Act, every individual must have access to all available services, regardless of income and place of residence.
- Health services must meet the criteria established for federal transfer payments under the Canada Health Act, including comprehensiveness, universality and accessibility. Problem-definition, health care and its alternatives must be client-directed.
- The context in which a woman’s “symptomatic” behaviour develops needs to be addressed when considering treatment intervention. For example, if a depressed woman is living in a difficult family situation, the caregiver must address the whole situation. Pills for the woman won’t change the family.
- Women’s normal life experiences are not usually medical conditions, but are sociocultural in nature and should be addressed from that perspective.
- Governments must fund community-based, multidisciplinary health promotion centres that incorporate perspectives which respect women’s equality, autonomy and selfhood. Services would include treatment, education, information dissemination and outreach.