Mental health is important at every stage of life and is critical for a young person’s short-term and long-term success. Unfortunately, 1 in 5 teens report suffering from a mental illness and many do not feel comfortable asking for help because of societal stigma; others simply may not have access to quality, affordable healthcare. Not addressing mental health issues can have dangerous consequences: suicide remains the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10-24, and the rate of girls committing suicide has tripled in the past 15 years.
Girls today face a broad range of mental, social, and emotional health challenges stemming from the pressure to please and succeed, the effects of media, prejudices and inequality, and violence. We know sexual violence has an especially profound impact. Alarmingly, one in four girls in the U.S. will experience some kind of sexual victimization before she turns 18. Young women who experience sexual violence are at high risk for depression and anxiety, drug and alcohol use, and risky behavior – leading to problems in school and increased risk of dropout.
At Girls Inc., we provide girls with a sisterhood of support, long-lasting mentoring relationships, and programs and experiences that help girls foster positive mental health. We also advocate for policies and practices that help girls get the health services they need most.
Unfortunately, many girls – particularly those in underserved communities – do not receive the services they need. This harms their educational prospects. Girls with unaddressed mental health problems may withdraw from classes or activities and lose access to critical development opportunities. Schools can play an important role in identifying youth who are experiencing trauma or mental health issues or trouble at home. Yet few educators get support and training on the impact of trauma on student behavior and learning, and there is a critical shortage of school counselors – many of whom report being overburdened – especially at schools where a majority of children are first-generation and low-income students.
As sexual harassment and sexual violence gain widespread attention, we must also pay attention to the impact on girls’ mental health. We must also advocate for disciplinary practices that take into account and address the underlying causes of a student’s behavior. Zero-tolerance practices don’t work and put youth on a path to prison, poverty, or whatever vulnerability they face on the street. Typically, just punishing a student for what they do is a temporary band aid and does not address the underlying cause. Giving teachers the right knowledge and tools can also boost their morale and that of their students, and according to research, can lead to fewer behavioral problems and higher graduation rates.
Mental health has a huge impact young people and their ability to lead healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives. It is also critical to the future health of our nation as a whole. To support our youth, all of us – parents, schools, community leaders, and youth-serving organizations – must work together and advocate on their behalf. The next generation is counting on us.