Women are currently on the frontlines of the fight against the pandemic, being at a higher risk of infection since nursing, residential care, and home care staff are predominantly women. Among this exposure, it is critical for women to be well informed about their mental and physical well-being. Women’s Health Education Made Simple (WHEMS), an initiative aimed at informing women on medical issues, is fulfilling that need in many necessary ways.
Founded by Modupe Tunde-Byass, Tanzila Basrin, and Salwa Farooqi, a trio that includes an assistant professor and a medical student from U of T, WHEMS is pursuing a mission that has long been neglected: enabling women to discuss and seek answers relevant to their health. Ultimately, this organization allows women to better grasp their mental and physical well-being.
Since its founding this summer, WHEMS’ roster has grown significantly. Initially composed of the three founders, this women’s health initiative is now composed of an all-women volunteer team of medical students, physicians, and allied health members.
While ensuring women have access to credible information regarding their well-being is always important, it is particularly salient in times of isolation and anxiety. Among the health care inequities that the pandemic has highlighted, the WHEMS founders saw the need for increased access to a women’s health resource during the pandemic. However, poorer health among women has been an issue since well before COVID-19.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the self-perceived mental health of women has declined. In 2018, 66 per cent of women assessed their own mental health as excellent or very good, whereas in the first wave of the pandemic, this number declined to 49 per cent. In both cases, between five to 10 per cent more men reported excellent or very good mental health. These deviations are not specific to the pandemic.
A 2018 study from the Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed that, in general, Canadian women experience poor health for a greater proportion of their lives than men. In acknowledging the existence of a long withstanding health care bias impacting women, the resources offered by WHEMS are, without a doubt, a necessary step forward for women’s health.
WHEMS’ website design feels approachable, and the fact that WHEMS is a space created by women, for women adds to the openness and inclusivity of this organization, which in turn helps normalize matters surrounding women’s well-being.
From blogs to a YouTube video series and a colourful Instagram account, WHEMS is uniquely accessible. But better yet, each of these media outlets affiliated with WHEMS focuses on, of course, components of women’s health. It’s not often that I stumble upon bright, well-animated videos discussing subjects like contraceptives and menstruation. It’s thanks to resources like these that WHEMS makes having a period feel empowering.
WHEMS also pays special attention to myth-busting ‘facts’ on women’s health, reshaping the depiction of women’s well-being. One particular myth is that having a baby is always a joyous occasion for all mothers. In a time when new mothers will be spending the vast majority of their time at home with their newborns without much outside socialization, it is critical that they understand the reality of postpartum life.
WHEMS works to give new mothers access to information pertaining to postpartum experiences, ensuring they are not doubly isolated by the pandemic and the dizzying experience of new motherhood. In order to accomplish this goal, the WHEMS Mental Health Series provides a segment on postpartum health. This segment is but one example of the myriad of ways in which WHEMS combats myths related to women’s health, empowering women with facts about their own bodies and realities.
On top of myth-busting, WHEMS is also concerned with deconstructing stigmas surrounding women’s mental and physical health. As remarked by McMaster University medical student and WHEMS Team Strategist and Content Creator Mehar Sasan, “the most baffling thing about stigma is that it puts a veil of shame around experiences that are usually quite common.” After all, it is stigma that is responsible for the creation of negative connotations surrounding women’s reproductive health, which are then internalized by women.
Women who view their health through a lens of reproductive and menstrual shame are less likely to raise concern when they may be experiencing a health issue. This unfortunate phenomenon is even more worrying given the increased seclusion caused by the pandemic. By uplifting the importance of and normalizing women’s health education, WHEMS is changing the narrative surrounding women’s anatomy from one of shame to celebration.
WHEMS’ accessibility is even more valuable for women in difficult financial situations, who are more inclined to face health-related obstacles. The organization’s Mental Health Video Series is easily accessed online and provides reliable information from health care professionals regarding many facets of women’s mental health. A couple of the video series dial in specifically on mental health issues that may have arisen due to the pandemic — a resource I am sure many of us would benefit from right now.
Due to an undying commitment to the women who WHEMS aims to serve, there is additionally a chat function on its website where users can ask personalized questions. Considering that the June 2019 average emergency room wait time in Ontario is 16.3 hours, the ability to ask a simple, health-related question to an organization run by professionals is extremely useful. Of course, this chat function doesn’t replace an actual doctor’s visit, but it’s still handy in moments when non-urgent information is needed.
Using the powerful tool of education, WHEMS actively combats the destructive forces of stigma. In doing so, it makes sure that no woman is left behind due to financial constraints. Every resource and tool that WHEMS makes use of is available at no cost on its website and social media platforms.
WHEMS is setting a new standard for women’s health care — and even health care in general. It’s exciting to see such a diverse group of women revamping the approach to mental and physical well-being, but it also makes sense; after having their health bombarded with misconceptions and stigmas, it’s time for women to take charge of their own health — and WHEMS is at the forefront of this mission.
Emma Paidra is a third-year English student at Victoria College.