Opinion Columns & Blogs

Youth survey reveals ‘dark cloud’ over teen girls

Every time I’m in conversation with someone and I mention working with adolescent girls through YWCA, their response is, “What a tough age for girls!” While this seems to be the consensus, I’m not sure the public realizes just how tough it actually is.

YWCA of Olympia works with 500 girls, ages 11 to 18, each year. We partner with nearly 20 schools across all county school districts. Regardless of location, the general experience of being a girl in middle or high school is what I would describe as a “dark cloud.”

The most recent data from the Washington Healthy Youth Survey was just released. HYS is administered every few years and collects data from students in sixth through 12th grades across the state.

I was shocked by the results of the survey, especially regarding what it tells us about the health and well-being of girls in our county.

The sheer number of girls who report depression, anxiety, contemplation of suicide, feeling alone and not feeling good about themselves is astounding. I don’t think this can be chalked up to just the “normal” teenage experience, because the rates of negative experiences reported by girls are significantly higher than what was reported by boys.

Something is going on here.

I’m further concerned that even with soaring negative statistics surrounding girls, recent reporting about the results of the HYS focused primarily on substance use and perceived risk of substance use. I haven’t heard one word about the alarming results regarding the health of girls. To me, what came across loud and clear is that young women are suffering from a mental health and social crisis.

In fact, when the results are compared with the number of young people using illicit substances, which I am concerned about as well, the number of girls with mental health issues is staggering.

According to HYS, an average of 44 percent of eighth- through 12th-grade girls in Thurston County are depressed, 20 percent more than what was reported by boys. The highest frequency was among 10th grade girls, with nearly one in two (49 percent) reporting depression. For this same age, more than 30 percent have considered suicide.

I think many people realize that low self-esteem among girls is an issue, but the numbers are shocking; more than 80 percent of girls said “not completely true” when asked if they feel good about themselves. Again, this is nearly 20 percent more than the boy’s rate. To compound this issue, 66 percent of girls said they feel “alone in life.”

These issues are much more serious and widespread than any of us should consider normal or acceptable, and they are starting early and getting worse over time.

This school year, the YWCA has worked with several girls who have attempted suicide. Two of them are in middle school. These are 11- and 12-year-old girls!

Also, a huge number (70 percent) of the girls we’re working with in our Girls Circle program have reported some form of self-harm, with cutting being a new norm. Since those types of unhealthy coping strategies weren’t reported on the HYS, the results don’t even give us a complete picture of the range of issues girls are facing.

In an average YWCA Girls Circle group, the majority of girls will tell us that they don’t have anyone they can talk to, that no one cares about them, that they can’t be themselves or talk about their challenges. They tell us they are sad. They tell us they are bullied. Girls tell us that they have been abused.

Girls also tell us that Girls Circle helped them find their identity beyond being a victim; it helped them realize they weren’t alone. It provided their only “safe space,” the only place where they get “real” support, the only place where they believe in themselves.

We need to empower these young women. When we support them, we’re not just putting a bandage on the “tough time” of adolescence, we’re investing in social change that has a positive effect on every facet of our community. Young women who are supported to have a healthy adolescence will go on to contribute to a thriving economy, will have improved health and education outcomes, will be equipped to overcome adverse childhood experiences and more.

The YWCA is talking about this, and we encourage others to start talking as well.