There is authoritative evidence that the mental health of young women and girls is deteriorating, and that the gap between men and women has widened over recent years. Today, young women are three times more likely than men to experience common mental health problems. In 1993, they were twice as likely. Rates of self-harm amongst young women have tripled since 1993, and today’s young women are three times more likely than young men to experience post-traumatic stress disorder. Young women and girls from disadvantaged groups face the greatest risks, and those who have more than one risk factor (for example, black transgender women) bear a particularly complex set of challenges.
At the same time, the mental health of young women has slipped down the policy agenda. Fifteen years ago there was a government strategy on women’s mental health, which included efforts to tackle violence against women and place women’s mental health within a wider cross-government drive for gender equality. In 2016/17, major policy announcements have dealt with women’s specific mental health needs almost exclusively in relation to perinatal care, and gender is almost entirely unmentioned. Currently, the needs of young women and girls are tackled within the broader envelope of Children and Young People.
The underlying factors for the deterioration of young women and girls’ mental health are complex. Analysts point to the role of domestic violence and abuse, which has risen significantly over recent years. The role of the online culture, social media and pornography also been widely pointed to as a source of increased pressure on young women and girls. Austerity has hit women particularly hard, with House of Commons research showing that 86% of the burden for recent cut-backs falling on women.1 Financial pressures have been particularly tough for black and minority ethnic women. More broadly, cultural and historical changes will have affected other women in a range of complex ways.
Whilst there is no single solution for improving the mental health of young women and girls, the first step is to re-prioritise this area of work. We make the following recommendations:
- There needs to be increased attention to gender across mental health policy.
- The Children and Young People’s mental health agenda must be gender sensitive and assessed for gender equality.
- There must be clearly identified government structures for sustained leadership and action to improve young women and girls’ mental health.
- Action for young women and girls’ mental health should take a whole communities approach
- Data on mental health outcomes should be systematically collected and disaggregated on gender, age and other protected characteristics.