Over the past few months, the mental health crisis facing young women has been writ large. Figures released over the summer suggest that one in four young women have self-harmed. Emotional difficulties in girls are on the rise and by the age of 14 - just under a quarter self-report experiencing high levels of depression compared to 9% of boys.
The Girl Guides annual survey showed that almost half of young women aged 17–21 report having needed help with their mental health and worryingly happiness levels have fallen with 25% of girls aged 7-21 saying they are very happy compared to 41% in 2009. In fact at the age of 14 girls are significantly less happy than boys with their lives as a whole and with each aspect of life measured in the survey. The largest gender gap was for appearance – over 1.5 points difference on a 10-point scale.
The reasons behind this are complex but young women themselves tell us that they face unprecedented levels of stress and pressure across all areas of their lives. This includes how they look and act but also to do well at school. A shocking 70% of girls surveyed (Girls Attitudes Survey) said they felt they had to be “perfect”.
But despite the scale of the problem, the emotional needs of girls do not always seem to be visible to those who need to see.
The Mental Health Foundation previously highlighted concerns that at the highest policy levels girls and young women seemed to have “fallen out of fashion” citing a number of new initiatives aiming at improving mental health which did not sufficiently analyse or recognise the needs of women and girls – with the exception of maternal mental health.
But even those closest to girls and young women may not always see what is really going on. Even parents are less likely to report symptoms in girls and more likely to report symptoms in boys - than the children themselves identified.
Our experience of running a service for children experiencing emotional and behavioural difficulties is that Schools are also far more likely to refer boys to us than girls. Behaviour problems are much more common in boys than girls and as one former teacher said recently “you do worry about the quiet ones, but it’s the ones that throw a chair across a classroom that become the instant priority”.
Tackling this crisis will need all of those around girls and young women to be aware of and understand the pressures girls face and the ways that these may show themselves.
The debate around tackling youth violence has recently picked up on the need to recognise the impact of “Adverse Childhood Experiences” on children’s outcomes and life chances. Being aware of these experiences means we can provide better support early on rather than waiting for problems to emerge. The impact of experiencing early traumas need to be recognised not just in terms of the likelihood of committing harm to others - but also the risks to one’s own emotional well-being and mental health in the longer run.
Providing the right support also needs us to think about family and friends. The Good Childhood Survey highlights a lack of closeness to a parent had a significantly greater negative impact on girls’ happiness with family and life as a whole than boys and frequency of arguing with their mothers was also more strongly related to girls’ satisfaction with family life than boys’. Whilst a Harvard report identifies that the single most common factor for children who end up doing well, no matter the hardship faced, was “the support of at least one stable and committed relationship with a parent, caregiver, or other adult.”
Similarly if the Government’s intention is to genuinely “transform Children and Young Peoples Mental health” as the Green Paper claims - far more support will be needed for schools and other agencies to understand the ways in which girls may be at risk and how to identify low well-being, unhappiness or emotional distress.
Attitudes towards mental health are changing for the better with a recent survey showing that the concern about mental health as a public health issue has doubled over the past year, leaving it second only to cancer. But if we are to make sure that young women benefit from this growing awareness and the funding and actions which follow - then we have to keep their needs in sight and in mind and the figures tell us we must.