Dr. Jessica Johnson: Teen girls’ mental health crisis

As Mental Health Awareness Month is nearing its end, I reflected on how the mental health crisis among teenage girls is receiving more attention from researchers.

This past semester, one of my female students in my beginning English composition class did research on how large percentages of teen girls are continuing to suffer from depression and anxiety, citing statistics from Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I have noticed that since I began to include mental health as a component in my Gen Z course theme, this topic has particularly piqued the interest of my female students, who have often shared personal stories of their own struggles in addition to the emotional battles of their friends. It’s quite obvious that for teenage girls, this is a very difficult time to grow up, which is also true for their male peers.

In specifically focusing on the mental health dilemma of girls, Donna St. George, Katherine Reynolds Lewis and Lindsey Bever published a February article titled “The crisis in American girlhood” in The Washington Post. My student used this article as one of her primary sources, and it was informative as well as troubling to read. George, Reynolds and Bever mention how teens are very good at “internalizing conflict, stress and fear” and provided personal examples from girls explaining the connections between peer pressure and loneliness to social media influence. The more serious examples were suicide and self-harm.

Within the past three years, I have learned a lot about social media influence and the addictions to apps such as TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram from my students. My female students have shared that they believe social media has more negative effects on girls, which research supports.

In her 2017 book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us,” Jean Twenge points out that since girls use social media more than boys, girls tend to suffer more from “fear of missing out” (FOMO) and “verbal aggression.”

Twenge also tracked the differences in levels of happiness between generations and found that iGen, also known as Gen Z, began to feel more depressed around 2011. This statistic in Twenge’s book has always stood out to me because she considers millennials the last generation who were content as teens, writing that with “iGen … teen happiness started to wane from its millennial exuberance.”

I agree with Twenge’s assessment, but I also think the social pressures experienced by millennials who were teens in the early 2000s were a foreshadowing of what Gen Zers are currently going through. There is a scene in the 2000 film “Seventeen Again” that starred the Mowry twins, Tia and Tamera, that is a perfect illustration of this.

Although a comedy with a plot where grandparents turn 17 from using soap infected with mystery chemicals from their grandson’s experiments, there is one serious exchange between Tia’s character Sydney and her suddenly 17-year-old grandmother, Cat, portrayed by Tamera. Sydney exclaims to Cat that someone from her grandmother’s generation would never understand what it’s like trying to be as pretty and thin as models in magazines or as hip as women in music videos. Fast forward to today, and Gen Z girls are inundated with images and posts from models and young women who are social media influencers.

In thinking about two additional essays from former female students who addressed mental health, they took a unique approach to analyze this crisis from a faith-based perspective. One student focused on how going to church and participating in activities such as the choir and Bible study helped boost her self-esteem and enabled her to establish meaningful friendships.

The other student, who I will mention by name, Kalie Klett, is the author of the book “Destined for Greatness: 21-Day Devotional for the Broken Hearted,” published in 2020. Klett’s book is her testimonial of how God delivered her through some harsh and difficult situations that many young people are experiencing. I am hopeful that more research will be published on how faith in God has helped girls, as well as boys, overcome their emotional distress, and how their belief in Christ strengthens their minds when confronting mental challenges.

Mental health experts have maintained that we simply can’t treat or “self-care” teens out of this mental health crisis. More testimonies from young women like Klett would be a blessing to so many girls who feel their situation is hopeless.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.