How can we give hope to girls during a national mental health crisis?
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The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association all warn of a mental health crisis in children and adolescents with “increasing rates” of mental health problems. These organizations have come together to declare a national state of emergency in the mental health of children and adolescents.
This announcement comes as no surprise to parents of teenagers, especially those raising teenage girls. In girls aged 12 to 17, the rate of depression increased 66% between 2007 and 2017; a whopping 20% of girls between the ages of 12 and 17 have experienced at least one major depressive episode. In addition, last year 24.1% of high school girls seriously contemplated suicide, and 20% made a plan for how they would attempt suicide. In addition, the number of emergency room visits due to attempted suicide in girls increased by 50.6% compared to visits in 2019. As parents, educators, and adults who care about the well-being of girls, these numbers are should get our attention. Girls are struggling right now, not only in the context of the many changes in youth and relentless pressures on social media, but also because of living in a world of global instability and growing up during an unprecedented pandemic.
There are obviously no easy solutions to this mental crisis. Girls who already have depression and suicidal behaviors need complex, multisystem solutions, including assessment and treatment by a psychologist. But for the many girls who have not yet developed these problems, here are some general prevention guidelines to promote overall positive mental health and build girls’ resilience.
Guidelines for Building Resilience in Girls
Look for physical wellbeing. Girls benefit from understanding the relationship between their physical and mental health. It is important for them to prioritize physical wellness practices such as balanced and regular meals (and avoiding diets), staying hydrated, moderate caffeine intake, regular exercise, and adequate sleep.
Incorporate self-care. In addition to physical wellbeing, girls with positive mental health take the time to incorporate simple self-care routines. She can begin by devoting a few minutes each day to spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, and reflection; Mindfulness and deep breathing exercises; Write diary; or keep a gratitude list1.
Cultivate positive social support. Today’s girls report increasing loneliness – even when they are surrounded by other people. Girls need connections not only with supportive adults – ideally with parents or caregivers, or at least with a trustworthy adult – but also with authentic friends. Help girls tell the difference between people they can trust and who have their backs and acquaintances who cannot be relied on during difficult times. Encourage girls to consider their social media usage patterns and their contribution to mood (e.g., “Do you usually feel better or worse after scrolling Instagram?”). While social media can encourage online connections when it is not possible in person, we also know that using social media can contribute to increased feelings of loneliness, separation, and negative self-esteem in girls. Help girls take regular breaks from social media to give them perspective.
Get a bird’s eye view. As most adults know, teenagers experience emotions vividly and intensely. Their emotional pain is so intense that they often think they just can’t stand it – which leads to finding ways to get rid of their painful feelings quickly. The inability to tolerate stress can lead to impulsive actions to escape through self-harm, substance use, or suicidal behavior.
As adults, we can affirm girls’ feelings while reassuring them that this kind of intense distress is going away; in time she will gain a new perspective on the situation. Many problems like breakups, relationship problems, family conflicts, and academic pressures seem overwhelming or even hopeless at the moment, but in a few weeks or even a day they won’t be so insurmountable. Remind them to take a step back and look at the situation from a different perspective, where the pain stops and the solution comes into focus2.
Move forward with purposeful action. We can encourage girls to articulate their beliefs and values to provide direction for their lives. Help her find out: What do I believe, value, and prioritize? What is really important to me? Marsha Linehan, the pioneering clinician and developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, reminds us all to take steps to “build a life worth living” by making daily decisions that guide us step by step toward our goals3. We can help girls continue to achieve their goals by taking small steps that bring them a sense of purpose, mastery, and achievement. Rather than being passive about her life, help her realize that while she cannot control everything that happens, she has choices about how to respond effectively in any situation. And she can take action to steer her life in a meaningful direction.
Life is tough for teenage girls today. Girls need coping and positive mental health strategies to respond effectively to stressors. As adults in their lives we can support them on this difficult path so that these emergency statistics do not escalate further.