Wish: A Voice for Women's Mental Health

Wish: A Voice for Women's Mental Health

by Rose Collard

Take note of the women’s mental health charity Wish. They are the only national, user-led charity working with women with mental health needs in prisons, hospitals and the wider community.

Wish recently hosted a live music, poetry and comedy night, Turn Up The Volume, that brought together a collective of female voices who all want to see a change in our mental health system. Performers included radio host Remel London, comedian Jessie Cave, poet Charly Cox, musician Misha B, comedians Chloe Green and Jodie Mitchell from comedy troupe The LOL Word, and poet Momtaza Mehri, who was recently announced as the Young People’s Poet Laureate for London.

The event launched Wish's latest project: the Women’s Mental Health Network, a user-led campaigning platform that will work to improve the current mental health system for women. The aim of the network is to tailor the mental health and criminal justice system, as well as the associated statutory services, to be more gender specific. The aim is for women within the system to be believed, respected and treated like human beings.

Joyce Kallevik, director of the charity, was kind enough to meet with me to talk about Turn Up The Volume, the Women’s Mental Health Network, and the work that Wish does.

Started in 1987 by a group of women, service users and professionals, Wish aimed to tackle the terrible conditions for women in the prison system and high secure hospitals. As both systems were designed by men, for men, gender wasn’t taken into account at all. Joyce tells me that there were rumours of women going into these establishments being hosed down naked by men. In addition, often the women inside weren’t even real offenders in any sense, for example they had merely had a baby out of wedlock.

Wish conducted some ground-breaking research which profiled gender as a differentiator, and from then on the charity was heavily involved with Into the Mainstream, a women’s mental health strategy. The research they conducted really changed things, as it provided resources to bolster Into the Mainstream’s strategies. As a result of this, two of three high secure hospitals closed.

However, in most acute hospitals, there are still mixed wards which are, according to Joyce, “atrocious places - the last place you want to be if you are in distress is on a ward full of other people in distress.” Although there are some moves toward making hospitals more gender-specific, the level of institutional sexism still present means that it’s really down to luck: whether there is a champion on that specific unit or in that sector who really understands gender. Wish was really at the fore of developing gender-specific services, and their model is built on relational security and the values of believing women, respecting women and validating their experience - which, Joyce surmises, “[isn't] really rocket science, is it.”

Joyce’s own journey with Wish started after its work with Into the Mainstream. Originally hired to help with crisis fundraising, she was eventually asked by the board to stay and become an acting Director. At this point, Wish developed into a user-led organisation with a number of different services. One such service was the gender-specific advocacy model, for women detained under the Mental Health Act. This is a proactive service where Wish go onto the wards and get to know the women, building relationships and nurturing trust. “Women”, says Joyce “are also less likely to complain than men”, so Wish have to try to identify what the problems are themselves. The second service Wish pioneered was a community link project, which they are currently completing an evaluation of. This review is a benchmark of identifying what "complex need" really means for women; it demonstrates that there is no quick fix, but that life changing outcomes can be achieved for women. The analysis is being finished this month, and they hope to launch in September, which is “quite exciting”, Joyce adds.

Wish are also developing the Women’s Mental Health Network. In doing this research, Joyce said she was struck by the evidence showing how often women are labelled or boxed and then merely shunted off to a service. These women would never have been validated by professionals that work within specific sectors - be it prisons, the mental health system, eating disorder clinics, drugs/alcohol units or homeless shelters, to name a few. This is because “they don’t understand or get gender”. Joyce explains how Wish recruited partner organisations across these sectors and carried out focus groups to find out the key things women identified as needing to change within the system. From this, Wish gathered ten main themes and are now planning to consult 5,000 women, to find out what the three key priority areas for change are. Often, Joyce explains sadly, “the primary one is just respect.”

Millions and millions of pounds are ploughed into statutory services every year. Small organisations like Wish recognise that not only do these services often fail to meet women’s needs, they actually traumatise victims further. The frustrating thing is that the services Wish and other organisations like them can provide are so often undermined by existing statutory services. Joyce tells me about a case where Wish worked with a woman for 8 months, saving the state a lot of money. The woman experienced an event which re-traumatised her, so she asked for a week’s respite from her psychiatrist, who said no. The woman then re-offended and returned to prison. Joyce sighs: “it makes me angry how we can plough all this incredible support and then the rug can just be pulled from under us.”

When Joyce started working for Wish, one of their main points on funding applications was that women aren’t listened to and their experiences aren’t validated. Fifteen years on, sadly that is still true.

Joyce has some eye-opening stories about the way in which women are still so sidelined. When Into the Mainstream was first rolled out, Wish were given some money from Comic Relief for a project called Policy Into Practice; Keeping On Track (PIPKOT). The idea was to work with women in three hospital units, enabling them to look at the policies in these hospitals and assess their gendered bias. But the name alone had Wish refused entry to hospitals, because it was giving women some power! The charity had to change the name in order to carry out the project.

Although Wish have been through a rough phase, they are still thriving. The staff, says Joyce, are so committed - "we wouldn’t have survived without them all pulling together, they give it well over 100% all the time". Things like the Women’s Mental Health Network and Turn Up the Volume have also been great for raising their profile.

Ultimately, Wish want women to find their own voice. As Joyce explains, “you can provide services to women forever, but in the end they need to be saying what they want and getting the services they want. We want women to feel like they have the right to say what they want - even to healthcare professionals.”

What can you do?

1. Donate to Wish. This can be done through their website.

2. Volunteer. Wish are always on the lookout for volunteers with specific skills. They will be recruiting trustees in September.

3. Share the Women’s Mental Health Network’s consultation document, so they can hit their target of reaching 5,000 women.

There will also be a second Turn Up The Volume event in November.

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