It’s tough to be a girl

New research from the Evidence Based Practice Unit (EBPU), shows an increase in UK girls reporting emotional differences in the last five years.

The study suggests that while an average school class from 2009 might contain one or two girls with emotional problems, in 2014 an average of three girls would be experiencing emotional difficulties – an increase of 55%.

The study asked over teenagers, aged 11-13, from a range of schools, to fill in a self report questionnaire online in 2009 and then teenagers from the same schools to fill it in again in 2014. Over 3000 teenagers filled in this Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire in total. In 2009, 13% of girls were in the ‘at risk’ category for emotional responses, according to their questionnaire responses. In 2014 this increased to 20%. There was no change in any other area of mental wellbeing measured across the sample of boys and girls.

Why girls? Dr Helen Sharpe, Schools and Clinics Research Fellow and one of the paper’s co-authors, thinks it could be due to girls being more aware of how they look: “The study itself didn’t look at why, but my hypothesis is that it may be something to do with body image,” she said. “We know this is particularly salient for girls during early adolescence.” Sharpe also thought the rise in use of social media might have had an impact: “We know that social media is particularly appearance focussed.”

It is possible that this increase was due to girls being more likely to report problems in 2014 rather than more likely to experience difficulties, but Sharpe doesn’t think so: “There’s no reason to think that girls would suddenly get more open about their emotional problems.”

Sharpe identified three main implications of the research:
1. Making sure we measure mental health in teenagers over time: “It’s important to make sure we are measuring mental health problems in young people so we can see if this is a general trend”, Sharpe said.

2. Making sure schools can signpost children to correct services: “I’ve been tremendously impressed with the schools I’ve worked with,” said Sharpe. “We need to make sure that schools are well-prepared to pick up problems and deal with them, knowing about evidence-based interventions they can use and services they can point young people in the direction of.”

3. Funding: “We need sufficient funding in services for young people,” said Sharpe.

The study is published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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