A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that nearly 3 in 5 teen girls in the U.S. felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, representing a nearly 60% increase and the highest level reported over the past decade.
The increase among teen girls was double that of boys. The report noted that "while all teens reported increasing mental health challenges, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, girls fared worse than boys across nearly all measures."
The CDC analysis includes 2021 data and trends from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and noted the following among teen girls:
- Nearly 1 in 3 (30%) seriously considered attempting suicide — up nearly 60% from a decade ago.
- One in 5 (18%) experienced sexual violence in the past year — up 20% since 2017, when the CDC started monitoring this measure.
- More than 1 in 10 (14%) had ever been forced to have sex — up 27% since 2019 and the first increase since the CDC began monitoring this measure.
- More than 1 in 10 girls reported they attempted suicide in 2021, also increasing significantly over the decade.
- Alcohol use is now higher among girls than boys.
Susan Madsen, director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project, conducted a panel on Tuesday with mental health professionals and nonprofit founders to discuss the report's findings and how to best move forward.
"I was looking at the trends in the data; I noticed that there were several trends that were kind of down a lot were trending down, but as soon as we got to the mental health data, it was either up or one that stayed steady. And that really stood out to me because I think they're all interrelated," said Christy Kane, panelist and clinical mental health counselor. "I really think that mental health is kind of the bedrock, right, if you can have good mental health and maybe you can deal with some of these other things."
Womanhood and culture
Many panelists pointed to the intersection of womanhood and cultural perspectives as a potential factor for the findings. Hales said she's experienced an increase in parents asking for mental health clinician referrals for their daughters over the years.
"I think it's a sign right there. This is happening in Utah, it may be happening at different rates that may be happening maybe a little differently than it does in other areas, but I think it's definitely a concern," said Hales. "Here we do have a culture that we want to be the best we can be and I think that is fantastic but it kind of strays into the perfectionist area."
Another panelist pointed to society as a whole and social media as a perpetuating factor. The impact of social media on minors was heavily discussed in Utah's recent legislative session and prompted laws regulating the apps.
The two laws include the Utah Social Media Regulation Act, which puts sweeping limits on teens' access to social media and a law that would prohibit social media companies from using designs that are addictive to teens.
"I think there's something going on, apart from just where we live, that's shaping that," said Jenet Jacob Erickson, an associate professor in religious education at Brigham Young University. "The social media piece — which I just heard someone very powerfully describe as like having a consciousness always present with you that is not your own consciousness. And what that means to a developing girl who's trying to establish a sense of identity in herself in relation to the oneness that she has within herself and integrity with herself in a culture where she can never be free of that outside consciousness."
The panelists encouraged continued connections and communications with young women to model emotionally healthy behavior.
"They need to see moms, aunts, friends, parents, friends, moms putting down their phones. They need to see all of us as adults, and I don't think we can underestimate, we're to the point of human connection, the importance of intergenerational contact. These girls need to see middle-aged women, grandparents, like all of us need to come together and sort of rally around these girls so that they can see us at all stages of life, being emotionally healthy and unhealthy and then working through it," said Tanei Atagi Henry, founder of nonprofit Provo Girls Summit.
Panelists each touched on the rate of sexual violence girls and women experience nationwide and also statewide. Utah girls and women experience rates of sexual violence higher than the national average, according to state data.
"We've spent a culture teaching a concept of morality, but not a culture of a concept of healthy sexuality. And there's a big difference and we have to become a culture that teaches healthy sexuality," said Kane, the mental health counselor.
The sentiment was echoed by Henry, who also voiced concerns regarding the controversy of the topic of consent in the state's political climate.
"We have to do better about educating our boys and girls about sex in general. We have to so that they understand body parts so that they can describe what happened to them, so that they can just (have) general safety," said Henry. "We're talking about the entire social structure of sexualizing human bodies. Our bodies are so functional and a part of them is sexual but that's not everything that my body is. This education really is an overhaul of an entire base."
An overhaul of the entire system is what Madsen also encourages.
"We're just so slow in moving the needle, and at our current trajectory, and we in Utah have high rates of domestic violence, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, gender-based discrimination and many other things, low levels of women in leadership. And if we keep going at the rate we're going, it's going to be two, three decades to make any notable progress. And to me, that's not acceptable anymore," said Madsen.