Boston’s Teen Girls are Facing a Mental Health Crisis
There is a mental health crisis facing today’s youth, and teenage girls are the most heavily impacted. Youth mental health was declining long before COVID-19, and the problem has only worsened since 2020. A CDC report from 2011-2021 found that the number of teen girls who say they feel persistently sad and hopeless in 2021 has grown by 60% since 2011. This unprecedented growth is not just impacting teenage girls — the recently released report also found that LGBTQ+ teens are facing ongoing, extreme distress. While new local data mirrors national trends, it also reveals an even steeper increase in feelings of sadness among Boston Public School (BPS) students, especially among female; lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB); Black; and Latino students.
We recently interviewed YW Boston President and CEO, Beth Chandler, along with Boston Partners in Education’s Executive Director, Erin McGrath (LeadBoston ’11), on the alarming report and what it means for the city’s youth. Boston Partners in Education enhances academic achievement and nurtures the personal growth of Boston Public School students by providing them with focused, individualized, in-school volunteer support.
What are your reactions to the research that’s come out regarding the mental health decline among teenage girls?
Erin: In many ways, this news is not surprising when taken in context. For our youth, the past several years have marked a period of increasing isolation, disillusionment, and frustration. Not least among the contributing factors is the COVID-19 pandemic, of course; many of the City’s youth rely on school for their social connection, which was interrupted for a year and a half or longer.
Outside of these COVID-related factors are the many other pressures facing young people today, from concerns about climate change to gun control, systemic racism and sexism, and bodily autonomy.
When we review these pressures holistically, it’s clear that many of them compound in ways that uniquely impact students who identify as girls, as well as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) youth. What the numbers from the report show us is that the cost of these pressures is unacceptably high, and rapidly growing worse. Adults need to support young people in addressing their emotions. We know that building strong bonds and connecting to youth can protect their mental health, and it is the responsibility of all of us to create these protective relationships with students and help them grow into healthy adulthood.
Beth: This news isn’t terribly surprising, unfortunately. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, young people lost family members and friends, had to take on additional jobs and responsibilities, and were burdened with the psychological trauma of growing up amidst a global pandemic. Younger generations are faced with unimaginable perils. At YW Boston, we use the 4 I’s of -isms to examine the ways in which biased thinking affects all aspects of our lives. These -isms include systems such as racism, sexism, ableism, and other structures that privilege certain people over others. These systems manifest in all aspects of our society. Intersectionality plays a huge role in this mental health crisis.
What are you hearing from your volunteers and school partners about how girls and teen girls are doing?
Erin: 1 out of 4 girls are suffering from symptoms of major depression, compared to 1 out of 10 boys. Girls are also twice as likely to suffer from anxiety than young men.
What is your organization doing to uplift girls, youth of color, LGBTQ+ youth, and the general youth?
Beth: YW Boston’s F.Y.R.E (Fierce Youth Reigniting Excellence) Initiative is an empowerment and leadership program for middle- school girls, inclusive of transgender and gender non-conforming students, within the Greater Boston area. It is an in-school and after-school program that uses dialogue and experiential learning through a curriculum that focuses on positive self-identity and social emotional skills, as well as social justice and civic engagement. This program is fostering community among teenage girls, which is a way to combat feelings of loneliness and anxiety. It also gives them the tools that they need to build a sense of self and empowerment. Research shows that by using empowerment, showcasing achievements, and placing more emphasis on social support, we can help girls through this crisis.
Erin: One of the biggest protective factors for students against loneliness and despair is school connectedness — the feeling that adults and peers in school care about both their learning, and about them as individuals. They need to feel like they are safe at school, and that they belong.
This is the heart of our work at Boston Partners in Education. Our model of academic mentoring is all about the power of strong relationships to support students both academically and emotionally. Recognizing the need for stronger connection and belonging for students, we have invested in strengthening the resources we offer to our volunteer academic mentors around the emotional needs of students, including specialized training around youth mental health to help recognize the signs of youth who are struggling, and suggested reading and activities to strengthen youth engagement.
What can people do to get involved and support your work?
Erin: We are always recruiting folks to become volunteer academic mentors -— to spend at least an hour every week in a Boston Public Schools classroom with a student or small group of students. The recommendations from the Center for Disease Control tell us that school connectedness has long-lasting protective effects across multiple health outcomes related to mental health, violence, sexual behavior, and substance use. Academic mentors improve school connectedness by providing students with a caring adult from the community who is invested in their academic and emotional well-being. You can learn more about getting involved or sign up to become an academic mentor at bostonpartners.org.
We also welcome partnership around training, resources, and other support to teach our academic mentors to build rapport and a sense of belonging for our students. If you’d like to partner together in this work, you can reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beth: If you are an organization or school that works with 6th to 8th grade girls and you’d like to partner with F.Y.R.E., contact Jay Boss at email@example.com. You can also learn more about the work they are doing in schools here.