Lifestyle & Parenting

Bridging The Gender Gap In Mental Health

April 3, 2024

Let’s talk about the gender gap in mental health. Sandi Treliving is a dedicated philanthropist and advocate for mental health. Like many Canadians, Sandi has been directly impacted by mental illness (her brother lived with schizophrenia), which has inspired her recent work. In 2014, she became a director on CAMH Foundation’s board and in 2020 she and her family helped to found CAMH’s womenmind, a community of philanthropists committed to closing the gender gap in mental health. We spoke with Sandi to learn more. —Vita Daily

Please tell us a bit about yourself to start.

As a philanthropist and mentor, and my goal has always been to inspire hope, build confidence, and amplify voices in the communities I interact with. I have a genuine love for connecting with people and creating shared enthusiasm for a project or cause. My sweet spot lies in bringing together people with like minds and goals—uniting plans and igniting passions—to help reach fundraising goals. I have always valued community-mindedness and the power of relationships. These two values are inherently linked and, in my opinion, imperative in helping us grow and thrive as a society.

How has mental health impacted your life, personally and professionally?

Like many Canadians, I have been directly impacted by mental illness. My brother lived with schizophrenia. While he began showing signs of the condition as a teenager, it took until he was in his 30s to receive and accept a proper diagnosis—and the medication and treatment he desperately needed. What I like to remind people is that the brain is an organ. And, just like other organs in the body, it can get sick. The more we can start to view mental illness in the same way as other physical ailments, the sooner we’ll be able to move beyond judgment and stigma and begin to focus on finding solutions and support for those in need. Being exposed to mental health challenges at a very young age with my brother’s illness, I always knew that I was going to do something in the mental health world. Because of this, I began to volunteer with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), and became a Director on the board of the CAMH Foundation in 2014. Thanks to the work being done by CAMH, I also came to understand the massive gender gap that exists in mental health — from higher rates of depression and anxiety among women to the fact that mental health treatments are disproportionately tested on men. This inspired me to take further action to amplify the voices of women researchers and patients in the mental health field. From there, womenmind was born.

When and why did you help found CAMH’s womenmind? What is its aim?

As previously mentioned, I became a Director of CAMH Foundation’s board in 2014. In 2020, I became aware of the necessity to focus on women’s mental health following a conversation with Deborah Gillis, CEO of the CAMH Foundation. After learning that historically, women’s mental health has been under-researched, underfunded, and undervalued, my family and I helped to found CAMH’s womenmind, with the hope to have others join us in building this community.

Alongside a community of philanthropists, we are committed to closing the gender gap in mental health. When the organization was created, we set out three key areas where we could generate the most impact:

  • Increasing awareness of the gender gap in the sciences
  • Advancing women in the sciences
  • Advancing research into women’s mental health, locally and globally

womenmind is comprised of advocates and changemakers who are committed to supporting women. We seek to prioritize women’s mental health and women in science by directly addressing inequities through funding and community building. We recruit new scientists, provide early career support, and offer research and leadership grant opportunities and a mentoring program for women scientists. We also host a global research symposium.

What are some little-known facts/figures when it comes to female-led, female-focused research, as well as health-care research in general, particularly in the mental health field?

Women, girls, and gender-diverse individuals are disproportionately affected by mental illness. Yet, less than 3% of studies in neuroscience and psychiatry are devoted to understanding women’s mental health. Historically, health research has overlooked the biological and socially-determined issues unique to women. While women experience depression, anxiety and trauma to a greater extent than men, treatment has been disproportionately tested on men—even male lab mice can outnumber female mice five to one. Additionally, women in science are underrepresented in higher academic research roles, holding ~35% of these positions in the United States and Canada.

Why are some of these stats a problem?

These facts outline the stark gender gap within mental health treatment and research. If health research continues to overlook the biologically- and socially-influenced problems that are unique to women, this gap will only continue to widen. We need to support women in order to enact real change.

 womenmind looks to address these issues head-on, with the goal to pave a better future for women’s mental health world-wide.

What are some of womenmind’s proudest achievements?

Considering it’s only been a few years, we have been able to make some incredible strides. To date, womenmind has raised $11.6 million in new funding for women’s mental health, and started 11 new projects in women’s mental health worth $2.2 million. We’ve also written 29 peer-reviewed publications; published 5 contributions to advance women’s mental health (including an edited book, two book chapters, an op-ed, and editorial commentary); awarded 7 postdoctoral fellowships; and had 40% of CAMH’s women scientists join the first cohort of our Mentorship Program. Recently, womenmind’s senior scientist, Dr. Daisy Singla, led the largest talk therapy clinical trial ever conducted for perinatal women. This important work aims to increase access to peripartum depression treatment and change the lives of women around the globe. We have also partnered with the Women’s Health Research Cluster (WHRC), an international multidisciplinary network of researchers, clinicians, community partners and trainees that work together to advance the health outcomes of girls and women worldwide. In partnership with womenmind, WHRC will be empowered to take a significant step forward to drive systemic change, foster more partnerships in Canada and internationally, and to facilitate new research that addresses the unique needs of women’s physical and mental health. Finally, we’ll be holding our first-ever conference in Toronto this month (April 17-18, 2024). With an international lineup of leading experts, researchers, and advocates in the field, the conference will centre on how unique biological and social experiences—from puberty through menopause—influence the risk for and manifestation of mental illness in women. We will also explore the implications for treatment to create a healthier society.


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