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Expert Voices

International Women’s Day – Progress for Mental Health

Published March 8, 2022

By Lucinda Pepper, contributing writer

How is your mental health today?

If you responded with tears, said you’re working with a therapist, newly managing depression and anxiety, or addressing your trauma, you would be in good company. As the 111th International Women’s Day arrives, we are asking: Collectively, how is women’s mental health faring in 2022? While there are complex challenges, there is a lot of good momentum. Discussing mental health openly is now more widely accepted as people everywhere seek treatment for the symptoms of pain and trauma. The global mental health conversation is enlivened as the shroud of shame concealing this critically important component of health falls away.

Today, and every day, we share our respect and admiration for the women and girl survivors in our programs who courageously work to reclaim their mental health and become more resilient. Sandra Githaiga, clinical program director, CVT Ethiopia, knows that among the many injuries from torture or conflict faced by survivors, healing from gender-based violence is crucial: “I always say if there’s no treatment or healing that happens, it can lead to grave physical, mental and reproductive consequences. The CVT mission guides me: when we heal an individual, we heal the family and the community at large . . . women function better.”

Women are the majority of clients in most of our CVT locations where we extend rehabilitative care to people living in and/or recovering from dangerous, traumatic and terrible circumstances, along with advocating for and providing mental health care to refugees and asylum seekers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, providing this kind of care has required nimble reimagining, and staff have exceeded their duties by providing phone and video counseling for survivors. Reaching clients via telephone or video, providing interpretation when needed, and tracking down unreachable individuals were some of the challenges to ensuring clients could receive services.

Because of staff efforts, 69 percent of our clients internationally in 2020 were women and girls who received life-saving mental health care and claimed their healing.”

Because of staff efforts, 69 percent of our clients internationally in 2020 were women and girls who received life-saving mental health care and claimed their healing. Alexandra Sevett, CVT risk management & facilities coordinator, affirmed this: “When I think about CVT’s achievements, I think about staff . . . responding to emerging contexts and to emerging incidents. Globally, we’re seeing that our clinicians have had to adapt to respond to even more stressors with and for their clients. This speaks to the quality of CVT’s programming, the incredible resiliency of staff and the passion folks have who work here.”

While researching for this article, it became disturbingly evident that the lived experiences and perspectives of transgender people are absent from the global conversations about violence against women and girls. Despite worldwide prevalence, violence against transgender women and girls is rarely included in policy, advocacy or tracked statistics. Because we value equity, it feels misaligned to talk about women and girls without specifying that we mean all women and girls, including transgender women, girls and gender diverse people who identify within the feminine spectrum. We appreciate progress; the World Health Organization recently redefined gender identity-related health issues, stating that “this reflects evidence that trans-related and gender diverse identities are not conditions of mental ill health and classifying them as such can cause enormous stigma.” Yet, collectively, we must do better.

Our world is striated by layers of challenges disproportionately affecting women and girls’ mental health: economic precarity and poverty, working essential in-person jobs in a pandemic, reckoning with cumulative impacts of bias, intimate partner violence rates rising with isolation, widespread political and civil uprisings carrying collective cries to dismantle systems, climate crises and environmental disasters creating human displacement and resource scarcity, and outright war and conflict leading to great numbers of women and girls trafficked, harmed, violated, maimed and murdered. The impacts of bias, oppression, injustice, and religious constraints underlie these problems.

Our mental health is impacted by the enormous pressure of these massive challenges. Collectively, we dance with despair.

Still, humans are wired to help one another. In a crisis, we offer what we can: emotional support, food, shelter, labor, money, transportation. Our acts convey care and create hope. Sandra knows CVT’s efforts to help women and girls heal even in the most difficult circumstances are working. She shared that clients who are women and girls suffer “mass rape, gang rape, forced pregnancies, sexual assault plus physical assault, having to offer sexual services for survival (to get food, shelter, protection). These forms of violence are exacerbated by conflict.” However, staff have “gone over and beyond to support these women,” she added. “They’re displaced, health services are minimal or non-existent, and yet staff give women the space to talk about what they have experienced, and to heal. That’s success.”

Mental health care normalizes the experience of trauma, reduces shame and allows women and girls to reclaim themselves. Alex shared, “Women who are able to be resilient within the world [with] everything that’s going on right now – who can overcome and do incredible things after having traumatic experiences – that’s where I draw inspiration from.”

Women and girls are saying no to violence and yes to their own healing. Despite the difficulties, women and girls achieving healing has a bountiful ripple effect- every whole, healed woman returns that gift in manifold ways. To women and girls everywhere: thank you for the gift of your healing.

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