According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 80,000 people die by suicide every year. This means that one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds.
Suicide is “the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29 year olds globally,” and is not limited to developed countries: “78% of suicides occurred in low- and middle-income countries in 2015.” Depression is “the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.”
What these shocking numbers reveal is that while there are many serious global health issues that demand attention, mental health must not be left behind, and this is especially true when considering the current state of girls’ mental health.
In The State of the World Population 2016, UNFPA portrayed a worrying picture of girls’ mental health, stating that suicide is the “second leading cause of death for adolescent girls between ages 10 and 19.” In the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates among teenage girls reached a 40-year high in 2015.
In the United Kingdom, data on child and adolescent mental health from the National Health Service has revealed significant differences between genders. For example, “more than two-thirds of antidepressants prescribed to teenagers are for girls,” 90% of children admitted to hospital due to eating disorders are girls, and hospitalizations due to self-harm involving girls “have quadrupled since 2005.”
The reasons for this global trend of worsening mental health conditions among girls are complex. A common cause given for such a dire situation is the negative effects of social media, especially in relation to body image issues. Though research has documented a link between social media and girls’ body image issues, this does not tell the whole story of why girls’ mental health is in crisis.
There are also serious issues of sexual harassment and abuse, domestic violence, and poverty faced by girls worldwide which have significant impacts on mental health. Research has found, for example, an increase of children living in poverty in the UK, and poverty has been found to be a risk factor for worsening mental health.
Not only are girls suffering from the most common mental disorders of depression and anxiety, but research has also found an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder in this demographic. And while links between suicide and a history of mental illness have been established, the WHO has highlighted the critical issue of high suicide rates among “vulnerable groups who experience discrimination,” such as LGBT and indigenous peoples, refugees, and migrants – and girls are included in all of these categories.
To address this crisis, organizations such as Girls Inc. are raising awareness of the importance of mental health for girls. Similarly, the International Bipolar Foundation has created a Mental Health Awareness Patch in partnership with girl scouting organizations that can be earned by Girl Scouts in all ranks to provide them with an opportunity to learn about mental health, how it’s portrayed in the media, and how to be involved in anti-stigma campaigns.
And if social media can be harmful to girls’ mental health, it can also be a source of help. For example, the Sad Girls Club is an online community for girls – particularly of color – dealing with mental health challenges. It was founded by Elyse Fox, who experienced depression herself, and officially launched in February 2017. The club goes beyond an online community, however, as it also holds real-life meetings.
The fact that mental health has been added to the UN Sustainable Development Goals under goal 3 is a good example of mental health being placed at the heart of the global agenda. The mental health of girls around the world today is without a doubt a complex and multi-faced issue. It requires an approach that takes into consideration the intersection of issues that have brewed this crisis, such as the role of social media in girls’ lives, poverty, and violence.
If we truly believe that ‘the future is female,’ then our girls’ mental health must be made a priority.