The Implications of Leaving Health Out of Schools

Paula Lima Jones, YW Boston Racial Justice Program Manager, and Nina Sennott, YW Boston Health & Wellness Manager
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Earlier this week a group of thirty educators, clinicians, community organizers, advocates, students, and a city councilor gathered in a sunlight room in the upper levels of the Reggie Lewis Center located in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. The gathering, hosted by YW Boston’s Girls’ Health, was a panel discussion on the implications of leaving health education out of schools, particularly the impact of that decision on girls of color.

Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, President and CEO of YW Boston, set the conversation in motion with the following: “Healthy girls grow up to be healthy adults. Healthy adults can help raise healthy children, which in turn create healthy communities.”  What is immediately apparent in that statement is that the health and wellbeing of a young girl extends beyond her individual life, the implications of leaving girls without the voice, tools, knowledge, access, and ability to lead healthy lives reverberates throughout the community.    

If we are not paying close attention to the mental health needs of girls of color – if we are not taking our girls seriously, the results are devastating. When girls are suffering from trauma, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, they are more at risk for developing unhealthy coping behaviors, such as engaging in unprotected sex, substance use, unhealthy relationships, eating disorders and more.  Panelists emphasized that so often it is unhealthy relationships at the root of the depression that young girls are struggling with, and emphasized the importance of engaging girls in conversations about what healthy relationships look and feel like.  Panelist Dr. Ebonie S. Woolcock, an OB/GYN at Bowdoin Street Community Health Center, shared that a significant number of the teenage girls she sees in her practice became pregnant not because they didn’t know how to protect themselves from an unwanted pregnancy, but rather, they chose to get pregnant because, “They just wanted someone to love them.” Extended out the future health consequences are dire: a report from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center points out that, “Women who have experienced domestic violence are 80% more likely to have a stroke, 70% more likely to have heart disease, 70% more likely to drink heavily, and 60% more likely to have asthma than women who have not experiences intimate partner violence.”

As for solutions, Boston City Councilor At-Large, Ayanna Pressley stated: “There isn’t a one size fits all approach to anything, and certainly not a one size fits all approach that caters to the wellness, development and safety of young people.” When we create blanket policies that don’t take into account the unique experiences and realities of girls of color, our girls suffer, and their needs go unnoticed and unmet. This includes queer girls of color. When we do not offer comprehensive health education in schools, the impact follows our girls from adolescence into adulthood; If it’s not done in schools, then where? There are examples of schools that are offering this type of comprehensive education and placing young girls at the center, Susan Trotz,  guidance counselor.

At YW Boston, we know how important it is for our girls to become advocates for their own health. Girls have the right to be their own narrators, to explore who they want to be when they grow up, to ask questions, to walk their own path. In our Girls’ Health program, through workshops on relationships, sexual health, self-esteem, and nutrition and fitness, we watch as girls navigate healthy boundary setting, explore their own identities, practice a variety of ways to communicate, and decide what healthy changes they want to make in their own lives.  As another panelist, Gary Bailey, Professor of Practice at Simmons College Graduate School of Social Work, pointed out, “Health is not just the absence of poor health…it’s the ability to anchor yourself into the earth. To know that the ground in which you stand on is something you can count on. Health is when young women are rooted in something that belongs to them, that they know cannot be taken away from them.”