September is here, which is always a special time of year, full of heightened emotions about the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. As my kids are both of pre-school age, I’m not yet in back-to-school mode as a parent; however, I am gearing up for the frenzy of out-of-school-time programs we deliver at the YWCA, plus an avalanche of fundraising events.
This time of year is also a great time to refresh my thinking about how to best support and empower the more than 500 girls and young women that my colleagues and I have the good fortune of serving each year through the YWCA.
From my perspective, the girls and young women in our community are clever and capable, sharply intelligent and quick witted, and abundantly creative and open-minded. They are also willing and interested in redefining societal norms so as to not be “boxed in” themselves and to extend a sense of belonging to those around them. We are in good hands with them leading the way.
Unfortunately, amid this limitless talent and capacity, I also see that many girls and young women in our community are suffering.
The most recent data from the WA Healthy Youth Survey (HYS), administered every few years, shows that an average of 44 percent of eighth through 12th grade girls in Thurston County are depressed. Among 10th grade girls, nearly one in two report depression. For this same age, more than 30 percent have considered suicide. In Thurston County, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds.
Many of the youth in our community also have high rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs include abuse and parental discord, as well as witnessing domestic violence, living with someone who is mentally ill or suicidal, having a family member with a substance abuse problem, and having a family member incarcerated. The more ACEs experienced as a child, the higher the risk for long-term health issues.
This correlation between ACEs and negative health outcomes was confirmed through YWCA’s recent “Girls Connection” evaluation, which was conducted by an independent evaluator. This showed that those who experience more ACEs are likely to have lower self-esteem and lower resiliency, rely less on social supports, handle conflict more inappropriately, and be more prone to dating violence. They are also likely to have poor body image and lower school connectedness.
Some of these challenges, such as interpersonal conflict, can lead to incarceration. In Thurston County over the last decade, the number of girls detained in juvenile detention has increased by 7 percent, with an increase of 15 percent in the past year alone. Assault is a common charge among these young women. While overall the rates of youth detained in juvenile detention are dropping, this increase in the percentage of young women — in terms of the ratio of females to males among the total detention population — mirrors national trends.
All of these compounding issues negatively affect school and adult connectivity as well as a young woman’s overall perspective about her future. When asked about school connectivity, YWCA’s Girls Circle Diversion participants say they do not feel safe, 38 percent say they do not plan to go to college or some other school after high school, and 33 percent say they don’t have goals or plans for the future. Sadly, 58 percent say there is no adult they can talk to about important decisions in their life.
As we end the summer and enter the school year, I urge us as a community to engage with girls and young women to change these sobering statics. Our girls are hurting and seek connection. Volunteer your time in a school or with a nonprofit helping kids, contribute to programs that benefit girls, or just talk with a girl in your life — be it a daughter, niece, etc. Let her know you care. Let her know she matters.
Hillary Soens, a member of The Olympian Board of Contributors, is CEO of YWCA Olympia, is married to an elementary school teacher, and has two sons. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.