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Why are teenage girls at such high risk of poor mental health?

Posted on 05 February 2019 by Amy Smith, Bids Manager .

The latest trends in teenage girls’ wellbeing show that a focus on fitness for physical and mental health is more important than ever.

NHS Digital recently released crucial new data on children and young people’s mental health. This was based on a nationally representative survey of over 9,000 children across England carried out by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), the Office for National Statistics and Youthinmind. It is concerning, but perhaps not surprising, to see that 17 to 19 year old girls have been identified as a particularly high risk group for mental and emotional health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder (being overly concerned with an aspect of personal appearance significantly out of proportion of any actual flaw).

At primary school, girls and boys have similar rates of emotional disorders, but by secondary school emotional disorders are more prevalent among girls, with the difference becoming even more pronounced in 17 to 19 year olds. Girls are also less likely to have high self-esteem and wellbeing scores than boys in every age group.

Emo Disorder

The gap between girls and boys is especially pronounced for particular conditions. Boys show higher rates of ‘externalising’ conditions, such as conduct and hyperactivity. On the other hand, girls are far more likely to have an eating disorder than boys of the same age.

Eat Disorder

This data is even more troubling in the context of a society which is seemingly obsessed with women’s weight and appearance. From celebrities endorsing extreme diets, to mainstream magazines engaging in body shaming, it is no surprise that girls’ mental health may be affected.

Sport England data confirms that many young women are missing out on the physical and mental health benefits of swimming and other sports for fear of being judged by their appearance, and evidence suggests that these negative attitudes towards exercise and body image begin at a very early age. Recently published research from the Youth Sport Trust found that 21% of 7 to 11 year old girls say they don’t enjoy exercise because of a lack of confidence, compared to only 13% of boys.

A series of campaigns aiming to improve young women’s self esteem have been rolled out, most notably  Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’. This award winning campaign was created in 2015 to encourage women and girls to overcome their anxiety and body image fears, and recognise that the primary focus of exercise should be enjoyment and wellbeing, not weight loss.  In its first year alone the campaign inspired 1.6 million inactive women across the country to start exercising (including me!), and a further 1.2 million to increase their activity levels. Its success is based on its inclusive marketing approach which uses real women’s stories, shared across a range of platforms from TV adverts and social media to local bus stops. The latest phase of the campaign, ‘Fit Got Real’, is designed to showcase how busy women fit exercise into their daily lives around work, childcare and other commitments.

Actress Jameela Jamil recently created ‘@I_Weigh’, another hugely successful campaign designed to transform women’s self-perceptions, by encouraging them to value their achievements rather than a number on the scales. The page now has over 200,000 followers and Jameela was recently named in the BBC’s Top 100 influential women of 2018 for her inspirational work.

These campaigns are particularly timely as NHS Digital’s report found that, overall, children and young people with a mental health condition were about half as likely to participate in sports clubs as those with no condition. This was true for sports clubs in school (23.9% of children with a mental health condition compared to 43.4% of children without) as well as for sports clubs outside of school (19.1% compared to 40.4%). This data suggests that schools could be better supported to promote the health benefits of exercise as part of the core curriculum, as well as providing equal access to high quality sports activities, particularly for girls who are less likely to take part.

In summary, this data has highlighted some important findings about the prevalence of certain mental health conditions and characteristics associated with them, for example the correlation between physical and mental health. Further research is needed to address the root causes of mental illness and improve mental and emotional health support for all young people, but particularly for teenage girls in light of these findings.

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