Throughout South Asia, millions of women with mental health problems are not receiving the support they desperately need and facing terrible prejudice and discrimination.

To change this unacceptable situation, we believe it’s critical that female health workers become increasingly empowered so they can provide high-quality support, shape services so they meet women’s needs and break down stigma.

This is why a key focus of our work is training female health workers to improve their mental health skills and knowledge and doing all we can to elevate their status in their communities.

Every woman who recovers from depression hugely benefits their household. That’s because they can earn more, send their children to school more often and feed their family regular meals.

The issue

In South Asia, women are more likely to be affected by mental health problems than men. This is due to many risk factors, including gender discrimination and associated factors such as poverty, hunger, overwork, domestic violence and sexual abuse; the pressure of their multiple roles; and postnatal depression.

Despite this situation, mental illness in women frequently goes undiagnosed, even when they have the opportunity to see a health professional. This is because women often struggle to speak about how they’re feeling due to stigma and health professionals being extremely authoritarian.

In addition to this, the healthcare professionals best placed to improve mental health for women rarely get the opportunity to shape services. This is because female nurses, psychologists, social workers and community health volunteers sit at the bottom of a rigid, male-dominated hierarchy of decision-making power.

The impact

Millions of women in South Asia are desperately struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression but are not receiving the specialist support they need. For many, their situation becomes so intolerable that they end up taking their own lives – South Asia has a particularly high suicide rate among women, and especially young women.

Another common issue across South Asia is that women are often abandoned by their families because they have mental health problems. This is mainly due to social stigma, as well as husbands and other relatives viewing them as a burden because they are no longer seen as any use to their household.

Sadly, if a woman with mental illness is actually prescribed professional help, they are often under or over-treated. For example, many women are held for longer than is necessary in unsanitary institutions where neglect and abuse has been documented.

The solution

To significantly improve the lives of women with mental health problems in South Asia, we believe it’s critical that female frontline health professionals and community health volunteers become increasingly empowered.

This is so they can provide the best direct support to women affected by mental illness; develop and shape mental health services that meet the needs of women; and advocate for women who may struggle to talk about their mental health problems.

As a result, we are carrying out the following work:

Providing training to nurses, health assistants and community health volunteers to develop their mental health support skills and knowledge. Establishing this expertise is not only improving women’s access to the help they need, it is also elevating the standing of female health workers in their communities.

Training female health workers so they can provide good maternal mental health support. This is particularly important for community health volunteers, because a large proportion of the women they visit are young mothers who are at high risk of mental illness and suicide.

Speaking to local government officials about the female health professionals we train and campaigning for decision makers to involve them in the shaping of services. Already, this has resulted in some female health professionals having input into the delivery of support in their communities.Training female health professionals and community health visitors to be strong advocates for women with mental health problems. This is particularly important because many of the women the health workers meet are highly vulnerable and subject to high levels of stigma and discrimination.