Girls today face a broad range of mental, social, and emotional health challenges stemming from a variety of sources, from the natural disaster trauma our community recently experienced, to the daily pressure to please and succeed, the effects of media, prejudices and inequality, and violence. We know sexual violence has an especially profound impact on the mental well-being of a girl. 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, alcohol and drug use, and risky behavior — leading to problems in school and increased risk of dropout.
As we approach national Girls Inc. Week, May 7-11, Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara and Girls Inc. of Carpinteria are raising awareness of mental wellness for girls and combating prevalent stigmas surrounding mental health issues and treatment.
Mental health is important at every stage of life and is critical for a young person’s short-term and long-term success. Unfortunately, one in five 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 health care. 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.
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. In October 2017, Girls Inc. adopted four national policy and advocacy priorities, one of which is supporting girls’ mental health (the other priorities include: combating bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual violence; promoting access to education and economic independence; and advancing reproductive health.)
Unfortunately, many girls — particularly those in underserved communities — do not receive the mental health services they need. And 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 by huge caseloads — 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 vulnerabilities they face in their lives.
Mental health has a huge impact on young people and their ability to lead healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives. It is also critical to the future health of our local community and our nation as a whole. To support our youth and particularly our girls, all of us — parents, schools, community leaders, and youth-serving organizations — must work together and advocate on their behalf.
At Girls Inc. we are committed to advancing the rights and opportunities of girls and young women, to eliminating the barriers girls face, and to reforming systems that impede their success. We invite you to encourage girls to use their voices; to promote positive, healthy lifestyles for girls; and to support organizations like Girls Inc. and so many others that work to eliminate the barriers girls face in order to help all girls achieve mental wellness.
Victoria Juarez leads Girls Inc. of Carpinteria, and Barbara Ben-Horin heads Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara.