Our National Mental Health Crisis: How to Help Teen Girls
5 strategies to promote positive mental health.
Posted December 14, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- National child and adolescent organizations recently declared a state of emergency for child and adolescent mental health.
- Rates of depression and suicidal behaviors have increased dramatically during the past decade, and especially during the past two years.
- Physical wellness, self-care, social support, broadened perspective, and purposeful action are key resilience strategies.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association all warn of a crisis in child and adolescent mental health, with “soaring rates” of mental health challenges. These organizations joined to declare a National State of Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health.
This announcement does not come as a surprise to parents of teenagers, particularly for those who parent adolescent girls. In girls ages 12-17, depression rates increased 66% between the years of 2007-2017; a full 20% of girls ages 12-17 have experienced at least one episode of major depressive disorder. Further, 24.1% of high school girls seriously considered suicide during the past year, and 20% made a plan as to how they would attempt suicide. In addition, there was a 50.6% increase in the number of emergency department visits due to suicide attempts for girls compared to the number of visits in 2019. As parents, educators, and adults who care about the well-being of girls, these numbers should capture our attention. Girls are struggling right now, not only in the context of the many changes in adolescence and unrelenting social media pressures, but also from living in a world of global instability and coming of age during an unprecedented pandemic.
Clearly there are no easy solutions to this mental health crisis. Girls who are already experiencing depression and suicidal behaviors need complex, multi-systemic solutions, including assessment and treatment by a mental health professional. 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 Enhancing Girls’ Resilience
Seek physical wellness. Girls benefit when they understand the connection between their physical and mental health. It is important for them to prioritize physical wellness practices like balanced and regular meals (and refraining from dieting), staying hydrated, moderating caffeine intake, getting routine exercise, and maintaining adequate sleep.
Incorporate self-care. In addition to physical wellness, girls with positive mental health take the time to incorporate simple self-care routines. She can begin by carving out a few minutes each day for spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, and reflection; mindfulness and deep breathing practice; journaling; or keeping a gratitude list1.
Cultivate positive social support. Today’s girls report increased levels of loneliness—even when they are surrounded by other people. Girls not only need connections with supportive adults—ideally parents or caretakers, or at least one trusted adult—but also with authentic friends. Help girls recognize the difference between people they can trust and who have their backs, versus acquaintances who can’t be counted upon when times are tough. Encourage girls to consider their social media use patterns and how they contribute to mood (e.g., “Do you usually feel better or worse after scrolling through Instagram?”). While social media can promote connections online when they are not possible in person, we also know that social media use can contribute to increased feelings of loneliness, disconnection, and negative self-worth for girls. Help girls take regular breaks from social media to give them some perspective.
Take a birds-eye perspective. As most adults know, adolescents experience emotions vividly and intensely. Their emotional pain is so intense they often believe they simply can’t bear it—leading them to find ways for a quick release from their painful feelings. The inability to tolerate distress can result in impulsive actions to seek escape through self-harm, substance use, or suicidal behaviors.
As adults we can validate girls’ feelings, while also reassuring them that this type of intense distress does fade; she will gain a new perspective on the situation with time. Many problems like breakups, relationship problems, family conflict, and academic pressures seem overwhelming or even hopeless in the moment, but in a few weeks, or even a day later, they will not seem so insurmountable. Remind her to take a step back and view the situation from a different perspective, one in which the pain does end, and in which the solution comes into focus2.
Step forward with purposeful action. We can encourage girls to articulate their beliefs and values to create a sense of direction for their lives. Help her explore: What do I believe, value, and prioritize? What is truly important to me? Marsha Linehan, the pioneering clinician and developer of dialectical behavior therapy, reminds all of us to take steps toward “building a life worth living” by making daily decisions that take us towards our goals, one action at a time3. We can support girls to keep moving towards their goals by taking small steps that bring them a sense of purpose, mastery, and accomplishment. Rather than taking a passive stance toward her life, help her realize that while she can’t control everything that happens, she has a choice in how she can respond effectively in any given situation. And she can take action to keep her life moving in a purposeful direction.
Life is hard for teen girls today. Girls need coping skills and positive mental health strategies to respond to stressors effectively. As the adults in their lives, we can support them on this difficult journey so that these emergency statistics do not continue to escalate.
1. American Psychological Association. Building Your Resilience.
2. Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide. Resilience Tips for Parents. https://sptsusa.org/parents/resilience-tips-for-parents/
3. Marsha Linehan. Building a Life Worth Living: A Memoir.