Girls and young women experiencing a mental health crisis

27 November 2017

Susan Maury, Policy and Research Specialist - Education Pathways at Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, finds children and young people in their middle years (between the ages of eight and 12) are experiencing a sharp increase in mental ill health, with girls and young women faring much more poorly than their male counterparts.

The ABC is reporting today that children and young people – some as young as 10 years old – are experiencing a sharp increase in mental ill health (Schools reach ‘crisis point’ with sharp increase in students dealing with anxiety, depressionABC News, Elise Pianegonda and Dan Bourchier, 27 November 2017). This includes serious mental illness diagnoses such as clinical anxiety, depression and increases in self-harm. 

These findings are consistent with those of our new research report Bridging the Divide: Supporting children and young people in their middle years which found that mental health challenges are increasing significantly for children in their middle years (between the ages of eight and 12), with girls and young women faring much more poorly than their male counterparts.

The studies

Prof Candace Currie is the Principal Investigator for the World Health Organisation's longitudinal study "Health Behaviour in School-aged Children". She reports girls are showing increasingly worse mental health, which manifests as young as 11 years of age. Additionally, girls are increasingly engaging in risk-taking behaviours.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies (2008) reports that girls and young women in their middle years are at higher risk of developing anxiety, which can lead to depression in late adolescence if left untreated.

Most recently, the findings from the latest edition of the "Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC)" reports that girls aged 14-15 are more than two and a half times more likely to have thoughts of self-harm than boys, and are nearly four times more likely to inflict self-harm.

These are recent trends. It appears that, in very profound ways, life in Australia is becoming increasingly unhealthy for girls and young women. While further work needs to be done to establish what is leading to such poor outcomes, the report also pointed to a number of likely factors.

Risk factors

Gender inequality

Firstly, girls and young women still experience gender inequality. Women’s Health Victoria has recently released their report Growing Up Unequal which finds that gender inequality negatively impacts on the health outcomes for girls and young women starting at a very young age. 

For example, the unfounded stereotype that women are weaker at maths and science pushes girls out of these fields and reduces their academic and career options. Girls are paid less pocket money and perform more household chores, and their movements are more likely to be limited due to safety concerns.

This means girls have fewer opportunities for connecting socially than boys do. Women’s Health Victoria has recently released their report Growing Up Unequal, which find that gender inequality negatively impacts on the health outcomes for girls and young women starting at a very young age.

Media portrayal 

Of significant concern is the way girls and young women are portrayed in the media. Girls in their middle years are subject to “tween culture". According to Anita Harris, tween culture “has formed, and been formed by… earlier onset of puberty, greater responsibilities in the family and at school, and an increase in personal income".

Tweens have emerged as a demographic in their own right as previously adult experiences and interests such as sexuality, popular culture, money and the occupation of public space are pushed back further and further into youth. (p. 210)

These subtle or not-so-subtle forms of gendered stereotypes are reinforced by the role that the internet often plays in the lives of children and young people. While the internet provides valuable access to information and ways to create or sustain social connections, it can also be a dangerous place for bullying and grooming. It has also led to ready access to pornography, which reinforces negative, passive stereotypes about women and girls and – worse still – carries a limiting message about the value of women and girls and condones violence perpetrated against them.

Where to from here?

The good news is the middle years are the ideal time to address issues of gender inequality and other factors leading to poor mental health. This group of children and young people places a high priority on family and friends and tends to be highly engaged in school and other organised activities. Children and young people in their middle years want to be active and engaged and are looking for information that will help them navigate the world. For example, they identify the need for holistic sex education – which includes such topics as gender equality, healthy relationships and positive body image.

Young people in this cohort also have an extraordinary amount of life experience, with many caring for others, serving as cultural or linguistic translators for their family, navigating the homelessness or out-of-home care systems, and/or dealing with the impacts of trauma or violence.

The middle years is the ideal time to help children and young people form healthy life habits, placing them on a positive life trajectory. By creating programs with the input of children and young people themselves, age-appropriate supports can be put in place to help this group thrive.

Susan Maury, Policy and Research Specialist - Education Pathways at Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand.