The European Parliament Committee for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality recently produced a report entitled "promoting gender equality in mental health and clinical research". This report was adopted by the Parliament in plenary in February 2017.
Such a report should be welcome, even though it only contains recommendations rather than obligations. Mental health activists can use such reports as a tool to advocate for positive change on the ground, especially where there are deficits in understanding and service provision.
Unfortunately, the report falls short on numerous fronts.
Firstly, the phrase "gender equality" is implicitly equated with women’s health throughout the report. Only two paragraphs out of 163 are devoted to men’s mental health. Likewise, a word count reveals that the words "women" and "girls" are mentioned 217 times, whereas "men" and "boys" are mentioned only 45 times.
Men have significantly higher rates of suicide, substance use disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Indeed, men make up over 75% of suicides in Europe, with over 43 000 European men killing themselves every year. Men are also significantly less likely to utilize mental health services compared to women, with only around 30% of service users being men.
These mental health inequalities are hardly discussed in the European Parliament report. As is often the case in these reports, the title is mendacious and does not reflect the report’s contents.
Secondly, the report purports to promote gender equality, but the recommendations seem to actually encourage policies that would entrench inequality. For example, the document demands that "all women and girls have access to screenings" (p.17). And member states are asked to ensure "free access to health services for unemployed women" (p.18).
No similar calls are made for unemployed men, nor for screening access for men. Likewise, the document calls for free "access to mental health services—including women’s shelters" (p.10) for women. Again, there is no concomitant mention of men’s shelters, even though men make up over 75% of the homeless, and experience similar rates of intimate partner violence as women.
In short, the report consistently calls for one gender (women) to receive special privileges which are not accorded to the other gender (men). This is not consistent with the concept of "equality".
Where is the Evidence?
Thirdly, the report appears to be driven by ideology rather than evidence. High rates of suicide in men are blamed on unproven factors such as "masculinity which may encourage suppression of emotions or resort to anger" (p.6). More bizarrely, mental illness in women is blamed on husbands, with the report declaring that "men do not devote themselves sufficiently to household tasks and bringing up daughters and sons, causing many women to suffer from depression, anxiety and stress" (p.18).
In contrast, discussion of proven risk factors for suicide or depression such as adverse childhood experience, financial strain, social isolation, divorce or bereavement are absent. Likewise, there is no acknowledgement that these can be experienced differentially by men and women.
The document also ignores vulnerable male sub-populations, despite evidence suggesting serious marginalization. For example, it calls on member states to "take account of the specific needs of lesbians and bisexual and transgender persons". But there is no mention of gay men, who have some of the highest suicide and self-harm rates in Europe.
Advancing the Discussion
All this is particularly concerning given that much sociological evidence indicates a current crisis in the well-being of men and boys. For example, males have significantly elevated rates of school drop-out, unemployment, incarceration, failure to launch and early mortality—all negatively affecting their mental health.
Many of these problems were discussed during a successful European Parliament event in March intended to enlighten the uninformed. This was hosted by Spanish Member of Parliament Teresa Gimenez Barbat entitled "Gifted Women, Fragile Men" where guest speakers (including myself) presented shocking statistics about inequalities experienced by men and boys.
Sadly, the European Parliament report on "gender equality" fails to acknowledge these problems, let alone suggest ways to address them. This is a wasted opportunity.
Hopefully, future reports on gender and mental health will recognize that the word "gender" does not automatically equate with "women". Men also have gendered issues that can impact mental health, and these must be recognized and addressed too.