Stigma around girl's mental health
Laura Laplana Rubio
If you’ve hurt your ankle, you don’t hesitate to go see a doctor. If you have a cold, you try to rest and take medicine to alleviate the symptoms. However, we rarely acknowledge and give attention to our mental health.
Let's face it. There is a stigma around mental health. Stigma represents an unjust label of shame imposed on individuals dealing with mental health challenges, a burden that we frequently impose upon ourselves. This stigma, thinking of mental health challenges in a negative light, often leads to ignoring symptoms of poor mental health. It can feel suffocating and isolating.
The COVID-19 pandemic took a harsh toll on mental health, with Gen Z teens (ages 13-17), especially girls, bearing a disproportionate burden. According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 57% of U.S. teen girls reported experiencing “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” in 2021. That is nearly twice as high as boys, representing a dramatic increase over the past decade.
The CDC research, released in February 2023, was conducted on more than 17,000 U.S. high school students from the fall 2021 class. While all teens reported increasing mental health challenges, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, girls fared worse than boys across nearly all measures.
The survey also found:
Among students who experienced poor mental health, 41% were girls.
Girls were more likely than boys to feel disconnected and not close to people at school.
Among girls, 30% said they seriously considered attempting suicide, double the rate among boys and up almost 60% from a decade ago.
Almost 20% of girls reported experiencing rape or other sexual violence in the previous year, also an increase over previous years.
What has led to the crisis?
According to the American Psychology Association (APA), Gen Z teens (ages 13-17) and Gen Z adults (ages 18-23) are facing unprecedented uncertainty and experiencing elevated stress. Their report,“Stress in America 2020”, shows that stress levels among this age group have increased slightly over the past two years.
There is no doubt that the disruption caused by the pandemic had a substantial impact on them. It represents a big percentage of their lives. Some kids entered the pandemic as youngsters, and after years of forced academic and social life online, they emerged as teens, socially awkward and uncertain about how to navigate friendships and relationships.
During this specific period of transitioning from childhood to adolescence, gender expectations begin to shape girls and boys. Girls come to internalize these norms around their relationships, empowerment, and sexuality to even a greater extent than boys.
There are several critical factors that have converged to create this mental health crisis, specifically in teen girls.
Increase of sexual violence
Boys and girls played together as children and were friends, but with puberty, those friendships can shift. Many girls start to be seen under the male gaze, highly sexualised by the media and their peers. The #MeToo movement began when Gen Z girls were relatively young, but they have grown to learn to be highly aware of uninvited sexual advances. However, boys seem to be less aware: they often make inappropriate or touching comments. The unwanted attention can be overwhelming.
More than 1 in 10 girls said they’d been forced to have sex, according to the CDC report. The widespread sexual harassment/assault reports in the news and the change in reproductive rights laws significantly affect the stress level of teen girls.
Social media and pressure to look perfect
Girls also feel a lot of pressure from society’s standards on how to behave and how to look. This emphasis on beauty and relationships (which includes being liked and accepted by others), is a significant contributor to teen girls’ stress.
Social media can contribute to that pressure. The constant exposure to unrealistic images and messages that tell teen girls who they should be, often leads to comparison, seeking validation through likes and comments, and exposure to cyberbullying. This can crush the self-esteem and psychological well-being of girls.
Academic pressure and an uncertain future
The pressure to be high achievers and perfect translate in many areas of their life, including education. Academics and college are a huge source of stress among teen girls, according to both the 2020 APA Stress in America report and the 2021 CDC survey. On top of being popular and beautiful, girls feel pressure to maintain high grades and participate in extracurricular activities.
Anxiety around achievement is often grounded in fears for the future – and more specifically, the need to have a ‘good’ future which includes getting into a ‘good’ university and securing a high status job with good pay.
Teen girls struggle with uncertainty of their own future specially during and right after the pandemic. They point out that it disrupted their plans or made them feel like it was impossible to plan ahead.
At the same time, they are aware of important key issues that will affect their future. They worry about climate change, and social and political unrest in the country.
An 18 year old interviewed by Associated Press said that she realized “how exhausted everyone is with the pressures of the world and the social issues and where they’re going to go in the future.” She added that “all these things pile up and crash down”.
The stigma around mental health manifests in personal, social and institutional levels.
Self-stigma refers to the negative attitudes, like internalized shame and fear, that people with mental illness have about their own condition.
Public stigma involves the negative or discriminatory attitudes that others have about mental illness.
Institutional stigma is more systemic. It involves policies of government and organizations that intentionally or unintentionally limit opportunities for people with mental illness. For example, lower funding for mental illness research or fewer mental health services relative to other health care.
Stigma not only directly affects individuals with poor mental health but also the loved ones who support them.
What can we do as society to improve girls’ mental health?
Policy makers, parents and educators play an important role in girls' mental health. It is key to provide them with safe spaces to talk, tools to succeed, as well as the needed health services and support systems.
Talking openly about mental health is crucial to reduce the stigma around it. Individuals speaking out and sharing their stories can have a positive impact: it becomes less scary and more real and relatable. It’s important to discuss mental health whether in the classroom, at the workplace, at home, on the media, or social media platforms.
Research shows that knowing or having contact with someone that struggles with mental health is one of the best ways to reduce stigma.
Many celebrities, such as Selena Gomez, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and Lady Gaga have publicly shared their stories of mental health challenges and brought the discussion much more into the general media and everyday conversation.
Teach kids to recognize their feelings
Recognizing and labeling one’s feelings doesn’t come automatically for many people. Schools can play an important role in helping students identify their feelings and mental health issues by implementing approaches that consider social-emotional developments at the core of their education.
Once children and teens understand what they feel, they can learn self-care strategies that will help manage symptoms of anxiety and depression. For example, they’ll learn that going out and exercising, playing with their pet, or talking with a parent can ease negative feelings. Furthermore, students also learn to be more comprehensive, understanding and supportive of others.
Young women are deeply influenced by their role models. It is important that school curriculums include history behind women’s movements and other important steps toward equality, and don’t leave women and women’ perspective out of textbooks.
They also need people that lead by example on a day-to-day basis from a young age. Encourage girls to value qualities such as their artistic abilities, intelligence and courage over their appearance. Celebrating young girls’ self-expression and the discovery of their passions and talents will have an impact on how they perceive themselves. Adults can help by acknowledging and celebrating those qualities.
Steer away from comparison and setting high and unrealistic expectations to young girls. Teach them to be cheerleaders for one another instead of competitors between them.
An honest look at social media
Inform girls about how unrealistic social media posts can be and guide them gently to a healthier mindset about these platforms.
For example, adults can help by discussing with them how social media influences their feelings, their self-perception and body image. Other things that can help are setting limits for their screen-time, setting a good example of healthy social media use, and encouraging hobbies and activities that aren't online and that can make them feel accomplished.