The Consumer as Expert: Women with Serious Mental Illness and Their Relationship-Based Needs

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Gender has too often been ignored in the treatment approaches for people with serious mental illness. A gender-blind paradigm overlooks important experiences that are central to women’s lives and psychological well-being. In Vermont, 25 women were interviewed to examine what difficulties within relationships they may have needed support dealing with and how well their needs were met by community support services. Results showed that many women needed help with emotional abuse within relationships (80%), different forms of sexual abuse (56-68%), accessing information about contraception, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (60%), and child custody issues (77% of mothers). Qualitative data revealed that mothers perceived mental illness-related stigma to be an obstacle to maintaining custody of their children. People were most available to assist women with accessing information about pregnancy, birth control, and sexually transmitted diseases and least available for offering support for certain forms of sexual abuse. These findings pose meaningful research questions worthy of further investigation in order to provide optimal community services to women with serious mental illness. The importance of researchers using the consumer as expert approach to further examine this issue is emphasized.

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