We supported women with complex needs. What will they do now?

Lisa Dando writes for The Guardian about how funding cuts have forced the closure of BWC’s counselling service for women with histories of abuse, poverty and addiction.

Since my teens, I knew I wanted a job that would inspire me to get out of bed n the morning. And for the past 10 years, that is what I’ve had.

As the director of Brighton Women’s Centre, I lead a team of staff and volunteers who work with some of society’s most disadvantaged women. These women have been turned away from other services because their needs are seen as too complex, they have fallen through the gaps in the system, or they distrust other services.

We pride ourselves on our holistic women-centred service. Instead of treating the labels put on women – depressed, offender, homeless – we treat them as individuals, offering support for a full range of complicated and overlapping issues such as violence and abuse, poverty, addiction, mental health and homelessness. It is an approach we know works, and we have helped thousands of women over four decades.

Counselling has been a core part of this service. Poor mental health is often bound up in the disadvantages women face so including counselling as part of our services is essential to support women and their families to lead healthy and meaningful lives.

One woman told me: “It was great to be in a safe environment and able to say things I wouldn’t normally feel able to voice, and to be heard in a completely non-judgmental way.’’ Another said it “helped to see that I wasn’t the problem. To recognise who I was and who I am. To break free and not be broken. To value myself in my future.”

But now this vital service is gone. Our funding stopped in March when our sub-contract from the local mental health and wellbeing service, which gets its funding from Brighton and Hove clinical commissioning group, was terminated.

We are still trying to get to the bottom of why that happened. It was so sudden that we didn’t have time to find money from alternative sources to continue the service. As a result, we have also lost the skills and expertise of a team of specialist staff who understood what these women face on a daily basis and how it affects their mental health.

We are told that women will be able to access support through a general, mixed-sex service. But these often don’t work for women. There is evidence that a women-only space makes women feel safer and more able to openly discuss the issues affecting them.

The public health report for Brighton and Hove shows that women are significantly more likely to have depression – 22% compared with 15% for men. For many of the women referred to our counselling service, symptoms of anxiety and depression are the tip of the iceberg. There are often more traumatic and enduring life experiences at the root of it.

It is estimated that 7,600 women and girls experience domestic violence, 2,500 are sexually assaulted and 4,500 stalked over the course of a year in Brighton and Hove.

Women’s mental health is closely linked to experiences of violence and abuse. More than half of women in England and Wales with a mental health condition have experienced some form of abuse. Some 39% of our clients said sexual violence was a factor in their mental health. This is unlikely to be resolved by a few sessions of therapy and a course of antidepressants.

The counselling we offered was effective and reasonably inexpensive, so with the renewed focus on mental health among the public and politicians, losing our funding does not make sense.

Public rhetoric on mental health is not being reflected on the frontline in women’s services. Yet again we see the inequality and injustice felt by the women and children we serve being replicated in the way services are commissioned.

The move towards generic, mixed-gender services has grave consequences for women and their families. Services that don’t acknowledge or recognise women’s specific experiences of trauma leave them struggling to find support that really understands them and enables them to build the future they deserve.

Closing a vital women-only counselling service in the city is short-sighted and to the detriment of many thousands of women and children in the area. Surely mental health services are about saving lives, not money. Those in power, locally and nationally, need to recognise the financial and social value of support tailored to women’s needs: for them, their families and society as a whole.