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young minds matter: our girls in crisis

Trigger Warning: mental ill-health, suicide

Image via WIkimedia Commons

Image via WIkimedia Commons

The largest ever federally funded survey on youth mental health and well-being in Australia has delivered some shocking results. There can no longer be a question as to whether or not our young women are facing a crisis.

In the two year survey, titled Young Minds Matter, one in 10 young people aged 12 to 17 reported self-harming at some point in their life, one in three had contemplated suicide and one in forty had made an attempt at their life. When you apply filters like gender to the broad sample group, a picture begins to form of a tragic and secret crisis endured by a growing number of young women.

Overall it was 16 and 17 year old girls who dominated the statistics, with 17% self-harming in the last 12 months. Of those surveyed, 22% reported directing their aggression toward their bodies at least once, and half of those did so more than four times. Suicide ideation afflicted over 15%, with 8% developing a plan and one in 25 girls made an attempt to take their life.

These results are markedly higher than those of the young men surveyed in the same age group. They don’t include the self-harm inflicted by the restriction of food intake or binging / purging tenancies common in those suffering from eating disorders. If those young women were included, and those who ticked the “prefer not to say” box at this stage of the survey had been open about their experiences, we would see a more accurate representation of mental illness in young women; the results would be significantly higher.

This is not just teen angst or hormone or a passing phase. Unipolar depression is twice as likely to occur in women than men and is predicted to be the second largest cause of the global disability burden by 2020. According to WHO – and proven simply by a quick look around – you ‘gender determines the differential power and control men and women have over the socio-economic determinants of their mental health and lives, their social position, status and treatment and their susceptibility and exposure to specific mental health risks’. Women are at a much greater risk of experiencing severe mental health issues simply due to their womanness, and the greatest socio-economic determinants of women’s mental health are almost all directly related back to the sexist taint that touches so much.

Gender-based violence, socio-economic and income inequality, subordinate social status and rank and the unremitting responsibility of others are among the major contributors to severe depressive and anxiety disorders in women. Consider for a moment post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and perhaps a particular image will immediately come to mind: the haggard war veteran, this poor brave soul who had gone off to kill and come home broken. In fact, the single largest group of people to suffer from PTSD are women who have survived sexually violent incidences. The high prevalence of the disorder corresponds with the increasingly high prevalence of sexual violence in the community – since 1995 reported sexual assault has risen 51% in Australia alone.

So depression and anxiety disorders are on the rise in women, and what about men? In the Young Minds Matter survey, it was conditional disorders and hyperactivity disorders that showed to be more prevalent in young men from the same age group (16-17 year olds) than young women. The survey defines conditional disorders as ‘repetitive and persistent behaviour to a degree that violates the basic rights of others, major societal norms or rules in terms of aggression towards people or animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness or theft, and serious violation of rules’. Many different studies highlight the link between conditional disorders and alcohol abuse and the high incidences of violence that result when a young person with a social disorder drinks to excess. This same violence that we can see directly affects the mental health of women young and old.

It is important to recognise the common theme that unites the nature of this violence, from perpetrator to victim. We are sick and the situation is only worsening. Mental health is deteriorating rapidly and globally, its deterioration clearly accelerated by that good old social construction of gender difference. But what is being done? A little bit of Google trawling and not much comes up in terms of gendered approaches to tackling what is only going to continue to worsen.

Recently an expert reference group was established to figure out how to implement the recommendations of a review of the mental health system in Australia. According to Allan Fels, chair of the National Mental Health Commission and renowned economist, mental health costs Australia $6 billion every year. He recommended pouring funds into prevention by diverting $1 billion (1% of the entire hospital budget) from acute hospital funding into more community based and primary health services. When you consider that recent decades have shown a drop in the use of residential mental institutions and hospitalisations, and an increase in the use of community services to tackle instances of mental illness, you do not have to struggle to see the sense in it. It was not long before the recommendation was squashed by the Abbott Government’s Minister for Health, Sussan Ley.

There aren’t many services specifically tailored to women, even less specifically tailored to young women. But there are services available and we must encourage ourselves and those around us to utilise them. We need to work harder to remove the stigma that shrouds mental illness and learn to better communicate our suffering. We need to stand strong for others and allow ourselves to falter and reach out when our outlook may darken. We need to stand together as women, for women, and for our entire communities.


You can read the entire Young Minds Matter survey here.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of mental unrest, please reach out to your community or to any of the listed support services:




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