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“Women suffer in silence”: How Liptember Foundation is helping women put their mental health first

Woman wearing bright pink and purple lipstick for Liptember

Far too often, Heather Lynn receives the same phone call from women.

“I’ve booked in your program, but I’m sure there’s somebody else that needs it more than I do… someone else can take my space,” they tell her on the phone.

Lynn is the general manager at Waves of Wellness, a mental health therapy program that takes people out of the clinical setting and gets them on a surfboard in the ocean to talk about any mental health challenges they face.

A trend of women sidelining and sacrificing their own mental well-being for others concerns Lynn and her team at Waves of Wellness.

“We know that a lot of women suffer in silence, and they’re experiencing this burden that they feel like they can’t talk about,” Lynn told Women’s Agenda.

“Women are notorious for putting everybody else’s needs ahead of their own. And it’s clear that this is a silent battle that women are doing on their own.”

Lynn isn’t the only one who has noticed this trend. Luke Morris, the CEO and co-founder of the Liptember Foundation, has seen this in his Foundation’s research and on-the-ground work.

The Liptember Foundation’s 2023 Annual Report, launched in June this year, found one in two women in Australia are facing a mental health issue. What’s more worrying, though, is more than half of these women are not seeking help.

“There’s a trend for women that they don’t prioritise their own mental health,” Morris told Women’s Agenda.

“That’s really concerning.”

This Friday, September 1, marks the start of Liptember, a month dedicated to raising funds and raising awareness for women’s mental health. People are encouraged to wear bright-coloured lipstick to spotlight the mental health challenges that women face.

“Men and women are inherently different, and women face really unique societal and biological challenges in life that can significantly impact their mental health,” Morris said.

“It’s improving, but I think there’s so much more that needs to be done… there’s always more that can be done.”

Where it began

The Liptember Foundation began in 2010 with three friends who noticed a problem with healthcare approaches to mental health.

Luke Morris and his friend Renee, were speaking with a mutual friend from the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne.

“We were talking about the role gender plays within mental health,” co-founder of Liptember Luke Morris said.

“It really resonated with us and made a lot of sense.”

But the national conversation on mental health was not tailored by gender – not for women anyway.

“The majority of research even back then was focused on men and applied to women, or it was a broad brush approach where all genders were put into the same bucket.”

Morris and Renee set out to change this. In 2010, they began a fundraising initiative where they dedicated the month of September to raising funds and awareness for women’s mental health, by encouraging women to wear brightly coloured lipstick each day of the month.

In the first fundraising year, it raised $70,000. And the organisation has only grown from there.

Since that first year, Liptember has raised nearly $14 million for causes that directly work towards improving women’s mental health.

“What we discovered is that when you place a gendered lens on mental health, you have much more accuracy within your research, and the success rates and effectiveness of programmes and services increase,” Luke said.

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‘Always more to be done’

The Liptember Foundation’s Annual Reports identify different challenges women face. Launching for the first time last year, their research was the first of its kind in Australia.

The research shows one in two women in Australia faced some form of mental illness in 2022.

The statistics become even more staggering when broken down into age brackets, cultural background and other intersects of identity. One in three Indigenous women have a mental health condition, nearly half of Australian women aged 18-23 have reported ever self-harming, and one in five girls in their teenage years experience eating disorders and suicide/self-harm, more than double the normal population.

Although women’s mental health is much more complex than it seems, Morris said his foundation aims to tackle the complexities head-on.

“It’s much easier to have a broad brush approach and to put everyone in the same bucket,” he said.

“But the results are actually really exciting when you tailor your approach with gender front of mind.

“There’s a lot of complexity in this space… there are so many pockets of women’s mental health. It’s complex, but we’re not going to shy away from it.”

One challenge Morris and his organisation have faced is being hit with the question: Why is women’s mental health more important than men’s, or any other gender?

“It’s not a competition – this is about just trying to be as accurate as we can, and give ourselves the best shot possible at really making a difference in the space,” Morris said.

The 2023 Annual Report was released in June this year. One of the key things the report found is the correlation between physical and mental health for women, particularly when it comes to reproductive health.

The research found one in two women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are living with severe mental disorders. More than half (57%) of women living with endometriosis are experiencing anxiety or generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), and 53% of women going through menopause are experiencing depression.

These key findings, plus many others, allow Morris and the team at Liptember to use the funds they raise throughout the Liptember campaign in the most effective way possible.

“We’re not making assumptions or throwing darts at a dartboard and going, ‘that sounds good’,” Morris said.

“We’re trying to address the key priority areas that are being expressed.”

The Australian government’s National Women’s Health Strategy 2020-2030 identifies mental health as a priority area to tackle in the coming decade. The 2020 Strategy reported approximately one in five Australian women will experience depression and one in three will experience anxiety in their lifetime. It also said women experience post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders at higher rates than men.

This week, a ten-year strategy on eating disorders was released, produced by the National Eating Disorders Collaborative (NEDC) and funded by the government.

Some key changes include understanding the needs of higher-risk populations, promoting children’s self-esteem and minimising weight stigmas, social media platforms and media organisations taking action, plus many more.

This program, plus other actions taken by the government, is a step in the right direction, but Morris said there’s still a way to go.

“It’s improving, but I think there’s so much more that needs to be done… there’s always more that can be done,” he said.

Waves of Wellness

The Liptember Foundation partners with a number of organisations that offer programs and spaces for women to seek and get help for their mental wellbeing.

Some of these programs are “novel” forms of therapy, including Waves of Wellness (WOW). The organisation offers programs for people seeking help for their mental health.

But it’s unlike traditional clinical styles of therapy, where you sit in a waiting room, then sit down and talk with a therapist for 50 minutes.

Instead, with WOW facilitators, clients don a wetsuit and hit the waves. It’s amongst the natural, buoyant flow of the ocean, and the refreshing relief of the cool sea water, that clients feel free to open up and talk about their mental health.

“We have those conversations out in nature to innovatively tackle mental health head on at the beach,” Heather Lynn said.

“A lot of the time people don’t realise the benefits they’re getting while they’re in the programme… It’s only after the session that they realise.”

Other than teaching clients how to surf, the trained facilitators incorporate cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques and acceptance commitment therapy into the programs.

“We use those in a group context to then develop and explore mental health, and then take it out practically when we get on to the surfing component of the program,” Lynn explained.

Since the organisation’s establishment in 2016, WOW has assisted more than 4,000 people in nine coastal locations across the country in taking control of their mental health.

“To be honest, everybody benefits from this kind of therapy,” Lynn said.

“It’s not only transforming people’s lives, but it’s saving people’s lives.”

The waitlist for WOW’s eight-week surf therapy programs is overwhelming, with more than 1,000 keen on signing up. Around 75% of the waitlist are women.

To get more people, more women specifically, off the waitlist and into the water, WOW has partnered with Liptember.

“With Liptember’s support, we’re going to be able to impact the lives of about 350 women through eight-week clinical mental health therapy programs,” Lynn said.

“So it’s really, really exciting.”

The work of WOW in partnership with Liptember might finally be able to curb that trend of women not prioritising their mental health, Lynn said.

“It’s a little bit like when you’re travelling on a plane, and they say ‘make sure you put on your oxygen mask before you fit somebody else’s,’” she said.

“You have to start with you. And then that will have a positive ripple effect on everybody else.”

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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