Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: Our girls' mental health and the recent CDC report
The list of worries parents carry with them stretches farther than the day is long. Often top among the concerns is the mental health and well-being of our children.
As most of you know, in February of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data collected from the first Youth Risk Behavior Survey to be administered since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. This data is collected every two years among a nationally representative sample of U.S. high school students. It also offers a look at 10-year trends. Among the results, the CDC found that “nearly 3 in 5 (57%) of U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021.” That number is “double that of boys” and “the highest level reported over the past decade,” the analysis stated.
A report with these types of findings is one that all of us in the work of raising and educating teenage girls pore over — and one that elevates the persistent trepidation every parent feels. Depression and feelings of hopelessness are not things to be taken lightly. Teenagers have a multitude of influences in their daily lives that are foreign to any of us born before the year 2000. As parents and educators, we find ourselves looking for the culprit, so that we can eradicate it in the lives of our daughters and our students. What is the root cause, and how can we fix it?
Let’s be clear — there is not just one cause. Experts have many theories and suggestions about the source of these feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Some blame social media, or school stress, or parental anxiety, or even adhere to a theory that extreme polarization among adults is leading all of us to be unwell. Perhaps, we can agree that we don’t have a simple solution.
It may be better in this situation for us to come up with strategies and coping skills that can help our girls navigate the inevitable challenges that the 21st century will continue to serve them. With this approach, we can find our way to some intentionally guided direction in the choices we make for our girls, and we can better encourage them in the authentic choices they make for themselves.
Before I continue, I feel the need to put the results of the survey into a larger context. The data for this report was gathered during the pandemic. No doubt that was a time when the entire nation was feeling less hopeful than in prior years. Adults navigated the unknown, sometimes fearfully, without clear answers for their children or themselves. Students internalized the uncertainty they absorbed from the adults in their lives, and the emotions of our girls ricocheted like ping pong balls as the connections and experiences that bolstered them were snatched away.
With that framing, I add this: Through all my years of working with strong and capable teenage girls, I have seen lots of ups and downs. I don’t believe teenage girls are broken. I think they have experienced deep feelings, and we must take them seriously. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the fact that girls are more likely than boys to verbalize and name their emotions. Sometimes that means an escalated self-analysis of their frame of mind — and, in turn, our heightened reaction to that self-analysis. That does not, however, make concerns any less real.
Therapists and counselors often point to a series of supports that, when in place, help improve and protect teen mental health. And, according to the CDC, schools can play an important role in mitigating these negative trends. By choosing Harpeth Hall for your daughters, you are already providing your girls pathways to combat prolonged feelings of hopelessness and overall malaise.
- First of all, students need to feel connected. The CDC suggests that students should feel cared for and supported at school. Our faculty-student relationship and the mutual respect shared between our girls and their teachers are the unmatched key ingredients in a Harpeth Hall experience. Sitting in the theatre last Thursday for our Faculty Appreciation Assembly certainly corroborated this fact as girls spontaneously sprang from their seats to cheer for their teachers. In addition, community-building through our clubs, teams, performances, and collaborative projects provides important choices for how our students can connect.
- Secondly, the CDC cites the need for increasing access to health services and implementing quality health education. Our four professional counselors are always available to students and parents. Their expertise is woven into the fabric of the middle and upper school experience. The education they provide is invaluable to all of our girls, and perhaps most importantly, they demystify and normalize the relationship with a counselor or healthcare professional. Our health education is formalized through our Life Balance curriculum as well as our wellness curriculum.
- Finally, research shows that contributing to the greater good of a community through service initiatives promotes good mental health. Our Public Purpose program supports and fulfills that research finding. In Lisa Damour’s new book, “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers,” she reminds us that “Normally developing adolescents tend to be more egocentric than people at other times of life.” She goes on to say that “teens can easily get caught up in their own concerns, sometimes losing sight of the bigger picture.” As a school, we recognize these predictable developmental obstacles and meet the girls where they are.
Our Public Purpose program provides healthy ways for our girls to channel their motivation to explore their world. Through this lens, they shift away from the small nucleus they occupy, which can perpetuate an unhealthy focus on their personal status relative to their peers. Instead, they pursue opportunities to contribute to the lives of others, which, in turn, helps them discover value in themselves.
In the end, there is no one solution to any mental health crisis our children may face now or in the future, but at Harpeth Hall we provide a web of support that helps each girl identify and cultivate her strengths, find agency, and — in the words of our Portrait of a Graduate — apply what she learns “to understand herself, others, and the world.”