Why aren’t we helping teen girls with their mental health?

Isn't it time we took them seriously?

A new report this week from Girlguiding suggests that teen girls are struggling more than ever with their mental well­being. The report surveyed over 1,500 girls aged between 7 and 21 and covered relationships, body image, drugs and more. But the top concern for young girls? Their mental health.

62% of girls aged 11 to 21 say they know another young woman who’s experienced mental health problems, with 46% aged 17-­21 personally affected by mental illness. And perhaps most tellingly, 82% of girls surveyed felt unable to talk to adults about the pressure they’re under, with a further 52% wanting to know how or where to get support.

The stats are shocking, but as someone who experienced severe mental health issues from the age of 13, they’re sadly not that surprising. It took ten years before I was taken seriously by a GP ­after ten years of breakdowns, mood swings and abject misery. Why? Because I didn’t feel confident enough to challenge my doctor.

The first time I visited a GP, around 14 or 15, I meekly told him how I’d been feeling ­ suicidal mostly, weak and low and desperate and absolutely addicted to self harm. I felt relieved when I finally said it, like I’d coughed up some weird parasite from a bad sci­-fi film. I held my breath. He slowly exhaled. Then, finally, he asked me: “is this to do with a boyfriend?”. Oh.

He went on to tell me that what I was feeling was normal and if he’d been talking about mental illness then he would have been right. But no. He wasn’t talking about mental illness. What he was talking about was my being a teenage girl, which necessitated treating me like I was a toddler merrily gargling nonsensical non­-sequiturs at him. I may as well have done, to be honest, because it’s not like it could have gone any worse.

But is any of this a surprise? My failed doctor’s appointment, the experiences of the girls surveyed? Because when was the last time anyone treated a teenage girl with the respect and gravitas they actually deserve? I mean, we have Malala, but it would be great if girls didn’t have to be literally shot in the head by the Taliban for people to respect them. We routinely denigrate, mock and patronise anything teenage girls are involved in ­- you only have to look at the smug, self satisfied tweets from Real Music Guys making fun of the One Direction fall­out to see that.

I spoke to Maia, a 17 year old girl who’s struggled with poor mental health. “I think patronising teenage girls is part of a wider culture of misogyny as a whole,” she told me. “My experience with eating disorders reflected this, because they’re stereotyped as ‘teen girl illnesses’. I never felt able to discuss them with adults as I felt like it was just something ‘every teen girl goes through’. I felt kind of stupid for it, probably as a result of internalised misogyny and mental health stigma”.

Vanese, 20, agrees. “I should be able to talk to people of any age about my mental health problems without feeling like I’ll be judged, but adults have talked to me about it in a really patronising way”.

It’s pretty clear to see why teenage girls don’t want to talk to us about how they feel -­ why would they? We don’t appear to take them into consideration at all. We don’t try to understand them. We don’t listen to how they feel. Why would they have faith in our understanding? Why would they trust us with their innermost thoughts when even their most superficial whims are minimised?

As Maia says, there are complex factors at play here: internalised misogyny, sexism, the stigma of mental illness. So it’s imperative that teen girls have the resources they need. We need wider, better education around mental health, in and out of the classroom. We need to campaign against cuts to mental health services. We need mentoring programs put into place so young girls have a trusted, knowledgeable adult who knows what they’re going through. And, vitally, we need to actually listen to teenage girls. Maybe that way, girls will feel more comfortable talking about their mental health and, for the first time, feel like they deserve to be taken seriously.

Main Image: © iStock/TodorTsvetkov