Community-driven exploration of girls’ mental health leads to new support

A graphic of a women with a cloudy head

Partnering with community organizations is essential for equity-informed population health researchers, and York University Faculty of Health professors Cheryl van Daalen-Smith and Marina Morrow have embarked on a community-driven inquiry exploring girls’ and young women’s mental health, leading to new local supports.

The project, titled “Pressure, Judgement, Fear & Girlhood: A Girl-Centred Understanding of the Social Determinants of Girls’ Mental Health and What We Can Do About It,” investigates the issues – as seen by diverse girls and young women – that enhance or erode mental health.

Partnering with Girls Incorporated of York Region and the Canadian Mental Health Association of York Region, the researchers and York Research Assistant Ariella Markus (master of arts, interdisciplinary studies) pursued a girl-centred exploration of girls’ own views regarding the issues they face.

In September, a community knowledge mobilization launch was held in Newmarket, Ont., where an open-access research monograph was shared and discussed with representatives from community organizations, policy developers, girl-serving organizations and government. As a result, a new and community-driven girls’ mental health network initiative, led by community partners, is in the early stages of development in York Region.

The community-based study strove to: explore girls’ and young women’s views regarding the current state of girls’ mental health; understand the issues impacting mental health; understand what they deem as helpful models of mental health support; and hear and document their views about what needs to change.

“The research team heard that girls’ lives are full of worry, with girls routinely hearing negative comments, and that the pervasiveness of judgement and pressure leaves girls simultaneously feeling too much and not enough,” says van Daalen-Smith.

While the participants varied in age, experience, cultural background and other aspects, the top three pressing issues identified in the project are: anxiety and depression related to judgement from others/society; social expectations and the constant comparison to others; and learned hatred of their own bodies and wishing they were (like) someone else.

“All of this pressure, judgment and fear gave way to clouded thinking, with the young women clearly telling us that their anxiety ‘was a symptom of gender-based devaluation and social pressure’ and not so-called ‘poor coping skills,’” says Morrow.

The inquiry, say researchers, confirmed the continuing trend that how girls are viewed, referred to and treated determines their mental health and well-being. It was also determined that the erosion of mental health is linked to a breach of their rights – something Girls Incorporated has been working to address over the past three decades.

The team also consulted with girl-serving professionals, including social workers, peer support workers/specialists, gender-affirming care workers, youth mental health workers, nurse practitioners and more. From listening to girls, young women and girl-serving professionals, the researchers put forth recommendations to consider when seeking to support girls’ and young women’s mental health.

Some of these recommendations are:

  • Believe, affirm and validate girls’ appraisals of their lives and experiences. They want to be believed.
  • Girls are afraid that others will find out they went to talk with someone. Help them find you in ways that feel safe.
  • Don’t focus on the symptom nor infuse girls with psychiatric labels through which to view themselves – language matters.
  • Girls want comfortable, girl-friendly spaces to be heard, affirmed, valued and believed – not fixed.
  • Empower girls to actively remove self-deprecating notions of themselves and other girls through individual and group activities that protect girls’ social vulnerabilities.
  • Remind girls about their right to authenticity, safety, bold expression, achievement, body appreciation, confidence and future self-reliance. Help them achieve these rights. Speak out when girls’ rights are breached.

The full list of recommendations can be found in the report.