Why the rise in anxiety among young women?

4 November 2016

Figures show that mental health issues for girls and women are on the rise. Statistics from the NSPCC released this week revealed that there has been a rise of 35% ChildLine counselling sessions about anxiety in the last year, with girls as young as eight being seven times more likely to contact ChildLine than boys.

The recently published 2014 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey found that young women are three times as likely (26%) to experience a common mental health problem as young men (9%). Young women also have the highest rates of reported self-harm and suicidal thoughts, with more than 1 in 5 having thought about taking their own lives, and 1 in 4 reporting having self-harmed at some point in their lives.

The theories

These figures show that the mental health of the current generation of girls and young women is in need of urgent consideration. Our 2016 Mental Health Awareness Week report on relationships may give some insight into the factors affecting mental health for young people as good mental health requires strong supportive relationships.

Family changes, moving homes, changing schools, or estrangement from a parent or siblings, alongside issues such as bullying, isolation, negative friendships and difficulties within peer relationships were all linked to poor mental health in children and young people and our report shows that these issues are also on the rise.

Several other theories have also been used to explain the rise such as the effects of social media, pressures in school and education, pressure to look good or anxiety about world events such as Brexit.

However, just because these theories seem to fit, it doesn't mean that they are causing the increase in anxiety - correlation does not equal causation, as the saying goes. There may be other factors that impact girls and women that we don’t yet know about.

How can we find out more?

The level of impact may also differ for population groups and thus, in order to move beyond speculation we will have to ensure we know exactly what’s going on so we can address it effectively. We do know that the ways in which young people become adults has become more complicated and policies and practices are not always keeping up. For example, the age structuring on which many policies are based is often complex and not relevant to the needs of young people.

Further action is needed to address the mental health of this young generation of women. We need research to establish exactly what the causes are, how they affect each person and most importantly, what we can do about it. Looking at schools, educational settings and workplaces would provide good initial settings to concentrate on but we also need to be aware that not everyone is in education, training or employment and take this into account.

Research needs to be multi-disciplinary and involve people with lived experience to ensure we are addressing the questions that matter most to young women, while not ignoring men's mental health. It is still too early to make a call on what has caused this gender difference, but if we do not address young people's mental health early it is likely that these effects could persist throughout someone's adult life, with long-term consequences still unknown.

Recent statements and upcoming parliamentary events suggest politicians are beginning to take heed of these latest statistics, but they need the right evidence base and input from young women. Without this, it will be hard for government to make the right decisions to prevent the development of mental health problems among this high-risk group.

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