Recently, The Guardian published an online article examining the worrying statistics about the number of girls who self-harm or have attempted suicide (you can read it here). This got us thinking about what the general state of mental health for young women. A lot of the time, the conversation about shocking statistics within mental health seems to revolve a lot around men, and with suicide as the highest killer of men under 45 in the UK, it’s easy to see why. But amongst all our worry about how to get the men in our lives to feel willing and able to talk about their mental health and seek much needed help, are we jeopardising a different demographic? Yes, we’re doing better at supporting men, but is it at the cost of not recognising the issues at play for young women?
The Guardian reported that a fifth of girls between the ages of 17 and 19 had self-harmed or attempted suicide. A fifth. That’s 20% of our young women who feel that hurting themselves or taking their own lives is an option. This data came through as part of a large piece of NHS research into the mental health of those under 19, which also reported a drastic rise in the mental health struggles of children. 1 in 18 young women between 17 – 19 years of age also reported a degree of body dysmorphia, highlighting a possible cause or trigger for the self-harm noted. As girls grow up, they are developing body image issues which they are not able to work through, and as they get older the issues just get more powerful.
All this shows one thing. Our young women aren’t actually happy.
We can do better. In an age where many women have more rights than our ancestors could have dreamed of and movements like Times Up and #MeToo are working to put an end to hidden gender inequality and sexual abuse/harassment; girls should be approaching their 20s feeling positive. Yes we’ve still got a long way to go in regards to wage equality, domestic abuse and more; but we’re slowly smashing the glass ceiling, fighting to defend the rights of those who need us and levelling the playing field. We’re at a much better place than we were just a few generations ago, so our younger generations (young women) should have hope for the future. But do we as a society just assume that because someone is young, with their whole life ahead of them and very few obvious responsibilities, they are carefree and endlessly happy? Between 17 and 19, many young women are in higher education, studying towards something they are passionate about and living away from home for the first time – but is it an easy time?
Moving to university can be a fantastic experience, but it also comes with different types of pressures. What “type” of uni student will you be? How will that impact your image with your peers? Will you be a “big name on campus”? Are you wearing the right outfit for a “social”? The drinking and partying culture of universities within the UK can play a major impact on the mental health stability of young women. When anyone drinks, they become a little less in control of themselves, that’s a biological fact. For a young woman, that experience can be incredibly worrying, with drunk “lads” crowding bars or the prospect of getting home late at night on your own raising lots of fears. 17 to 19 years olds have also grown up in the age of social media, where every experience is documented and recorded for all to see.
With all this mixing around in the head of your average 18-year-old, poor mental health is bound to come about. There’s just too much to worry about, and that’s before we’ve even begun to consider the pressure that the media plays on the mental health of girls and women across the World. 17 to 19 is a time of great change, and evidently, there’s a flaw in the current system to help girls adapt and cope.
So, what can we do about all this? If the data is showing an issue in the mental health of young women, how do we work to resolve this? We need to take an active role in reducing the number from 1 in 5 of our young women contemplating self-harm or suicide. The way forward is not easy, and there’s no clear solution yet, but there are a few simple steps we can all take together to support girls in their mental health development.
- Encourage positive body images. Let’s stop celebrating celebrities with unnatural bodies or ultra-thin shapes and subliminally indicating that there is a “right” and a “wrong” body shape. Women come in all shapes and sizes because our individual bodies work to keep us alive and breathing and healthy. Stop encouraging girls to mess with biology just to fit an unrealistic magazine cover.
- Stop focussing on body image full stop. Why are we all so preoccupied with the way women look in our society? Support campaigns like Jameela Jamil’s “I Weigh”, where the value of women is placed on their achievements in life, passions, careers, families, aspirations and more, rather than what the scales say. We should be teaching our girls that the most important thing is to be a good person who contributes positively to society.
- Create better support systems at universities. If 17 to 19 is the age bracket that is suffering greatly, then a benefit could be found in providing a support through student unions, societies and colleges at universities across the UK. We should make sure that all girls starting university know that they can talk about the process in a comforting and safe place.
- Cut back on social media. With everyone tweeting, uploading to their Insta Stories and FlashbackFriday-ing everywhere you look it’s impossible to breathe without social media knowing about it. This puts a stifling pressure on everyone, but especially young people. So, what if we all worked to reduce this pressure? Let’s set better examples and lead younger generations into an age where the dependency on a social profile is lessened.
- Provide better opportunities for young women in STEM fields. We’re working on equalising the playing field in terms of career development, so let’s make sure girls know they have all the opportunities they could wish for. As they’re approaching their 20s and starting their careers, we can be there to support their studies or work in typically male-dominated fields, like science, technology, engineering and maths.
It must be 100% clear: these tips will not help an individual with their mental health struggles. If you or someone you know is suffering with their mental health, then they need to seek professional advice.
These guidelines are just a way for our community to combat the general aspects that may be impacting young women as a whole. Every person who battles against negativity in their mental health will have their own, very personal, reasons about why they feel that way. Some of the general issues within our society will obviously come into play, but it’ll all be interpreted differently.
So, our one tip for if you have a someone in your life who you think is suffering with their mental health: reach out and ask if they’re okay. Kindness is the most powerful tool we all have at our disposal, let’s use it.