THE CURRENT STATE OF GIRLS' MENTAL HEALTH
Jo Johnson, from the Student Wellbeing team at Rowville Secondary College shared that, while many boys managed to maintain their social connections during the pandemic, some girls expressed that they had lost relationships, with students in years 7, 8 and 10 being most affected. Spending large amount of social contact online during lockdown, appeared to create a blurring of boundaries for some girls as reflected in an increase in inappropriate language being used within friendship groups and work needing to be done round the impact of words on their peers moods and sense of self.
Jo notes that family dynamics have also impacted girls’ mental health over the last two years. An example given was around young people taking on parenting roles due to declining mental health of parents.
‘I kind of think of it as the 10% factor, because everything that's where it was [before the pandemic] seems to be just that 10% worse this year.’
In the primary years, Christine Pengelly, grade 6 teacher at St Matthew's Catholic Primary School advised that their year 3 girls have started experimenting with different friendship groups, without being sure how to navigate social cues or having the maturity to deal with these changes. While, in grade 6, the girls, being at the end of their primary years, are having a superiority complex, which has caused them to become ostracised from the other students.
Jackie Fleischmann, wellbeing leader at St Matthew's Catholic Primary School, adds ‘it's that social anxiety coming through … it's a common thread’ for students right across the schooling years.
The overarching and consistent issues facing girls in Australia include body image, sense of belonging, friendship concerns, online bullying, gossip, relationships with family, and anxiety around the return to school and keeping up with school work.
Expectation and abuse of girls begins early
A recent study by the eSafety Commissioner found that there were big differences in social media use between boys and girls. Boys tended to gravitate toward video streaming sites like YouTube, while girls preferred platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat. These image-based apps have affected how girls see themselves, and result in unhealthy comparisons, body image issues and the desire for perfection. They are also a breeding ground for bullying and harassment, as ‘seven out of ten Australian girls, age 15 to 19, believe online harassment and bullying is endemic. Receiving unwanted, uninvited, sexually explicit content online is now considered common behaviour’, Dr O’Grady highlights.
Compared to their male peers, girls are facing more threats of sexual violence, comments about their appearance, and are more often told not to speak out or have an opinion online. These negative interactions can have lasting effects on self-worth, mental health, and interactions with others when offline.
Dr O’Grady also points out the underlying issue of teacher bias, which can affect students’ marks and study choices While females generally outperform males in most subjects, and boys don’t outperform girls in high school maths and physics, female enrolment in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees are disproportionately low. Teacher gender bias at least partly explains these low enrolments. Girls surveyed in a recent study suggest that schools push STEM but dismiss creative ambitions (drama, music, art) as a hobby rather than a job option, and devalue humanities (Megalokonomou, 2021).
What can schools do to tackle these issues?
While there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to tackling the issues impacting on girls’ mental health, there are steps schools can take to help girls feel seen, understood, and to improve their sense of belonging to the school community.
Dr O’Grady stresses that the school climate is an ideal target for promoting student mental health. Schools can instigate co-operative learning strategies by emphasising building the basic social and emotional skills needed after COVID19 to help students get back up to where they might have been beforehand.
Take time to reflect
Consider the following questions when thinking about your school environment, and the status of the mental health of your students.
- What do you notice about your school community – who’s most visible in reflection to gender?
- How do gender norms/dynamics play out amongst staff? Amongst parents?
- What does intersectionality look like in your school community?
- What is in place already to recognise and understand gender?
- What might be unconscious/invisible/unnamed at the moment?
Strategies for promoting positive mental health
Here are some steps your school can take to address the issues impacting on the mental health of girls, as shared by our panellists.
Set up processes to support student wellbeing
- Implement student cross-grade partnerships to promote positive student relationships.
- Set up and run regular bullying prevention programs.
- Include parents in decision-making processes, and show appreciation when parents get involved.
- Connect with students on an emotional level using diverse and best practice strategies.
- Validate students – listen and take their feelings on board.
- Acknowledge student success.
- Include students in the development of school policies.
- Ensure rules are consistent and fair across settings.
- Take feasible actions within the school’s means to improve physical and structural dimensions of the school climate.
Host programs and engagement activities to encourage positive mental health
- Set up ‘no blame’ conferences where every student gets an opportunity to say how they feel, without blame.
- Introduce programs such as:
- TRAILS to Wellness, 6-8 week sessions which work on anxiety or socialisation.
- Drumbeat, a therapeutic drumming program.
- BRAVE Program, which is fantastic for students with high anxiety.
- Dogs Connect, which has many therapeutic benefits, and girls in particular tend to connect strongly with this program.
- Tuning into Teens, a program for parents, but also to ‘help students have conversations with their parents’.
- Respectful Relationships
- Make use of sites like Be You, which offer a program directory, which provides information including where the program is available, whether it is evidence-based, and its effectiveness.
Helping girls feel seen and valued
As social media presence and usage increases, the impact of isolation created by the pandemic continues to take effect. Pressure to succeed at school is ever present, but it’s important to note that life for young girls is a very different experience than it has ever been for this age group. With mental health concerns presenting more frequently, Dr O’Grady suggests that parents and teachers need to consider what has changed, what remains the same and what new opportunities are available to assist young girls at this important development phase in life.