Girls’ mental health and COVID-19

By Kerri Whelan
May 1, 2020

There is no “us vs. them.” We’re all equal, and we can all become vulnerable. Just look at what’s happening with the coronavirus. In an instant, your life can be put at risk.

We might separate ourselves from the challenges that girls’ in low-income countries face because they’re not things we’ve seen or lived through ourselves. Their experiences can feel foreign. But girls who are forced to become child brides, girls who are forced to believe that their gender doesn’t warrant them an education — they’re people who have vulnerabilities just like your own.

Millions of girls around the world suffer from mental health issues. The complexities of being human don’t surrender to borders. And for girls living in deeply unequal cultures, managing mental health is particularly sinister and challenging.

Mental illnesses are often caused by childhood trauma. For vulnerable girls, trauma is hard to escape. And in many communities where Plan International USA works, talking about mental health is taboo. Girls might be left with no one to talk to, feeling isolated and hopeless, never knowing that what they’re experiencing is completely normal and treatable.

And now that the world is facing COVID-19, the mental health of girls is being tested more than ever. 

A 16-year-old girl from the Philippines named Tisay recently faced a major life change. Her parents told her they were permanently separating. “I had to adjust to our new family situation,” she says. “It was unexpected, and it affected me.”

So many girls and children across the world struggle with the weight of family conflict. Think about the stress during those situations for girls also struggling with the weight of extreme poverty — girls who might not know when their next meal will be or if they’ll be able to afford menstrual pads when they get their period.

Tisay tried to go on with life as usual after her parents’ separation. She bottled up her emotions, trying not to burden anyone with her sadness. But one morning, she woke up and felt completely numb. She couldn’t breathe. She felt like she had no control, her body completely frozen, but her mind racing.

Her mother took her to a medical clinic, and when the doctor told her what was happening, she didn’t fully understand. It was something she hadn’t heard much about: an anxiety attack.

Tisay was lucky enough be seen by a doctor who openly discussed anxiety and depression with her. And things started making sense. “On the outside, I looked fine, happy,” she says. “But I was always trying to hold back tears. I never spoke about it because I was scared of being judged.”

Tisay (left) with fellow Youth Peer Educators.

Tisay is now a part of Plan’s RAISE Above project as a Youth Peer Educator, where she advises other teens struggling with mental health to open up to someone they can trust, like a friend, teacher or family member.

And during this uniquely difficult time we’re all living through, Tisay is advising girls and young people to practice these self-care tips during quarantine:

— Get enough rest and sleep

— Practice a healthy diet

— Stay hydrated

— Exercise

— Develop hobbies and find your passions

— Discover new interests

— Allow yourself alone time

— Maintain friendships and meaningful connections

Learning Specialist for Plan’s RAISE Above project, Phil De Leon, says adolescence is an extremely common life stage where girls like Tisay experience mental health issues. “It’s one of the most challenging life stages,” he says. “But it’s also the most exciting and self-revealing, as we discover our passions, our inner strengths and who we are.”

Tisay says mental health isn’t taken as seriously as physical health in the Philippines. There’s stigma around mental illnesses, especially for girls and women. And now that the country is combating COVID-19, health care providers aren’t as able to help girls with issues like anxiety or depression — even though this pandemic is likely to intensify those feelings.

Tisay wants to change things in her culture so that everyone can come out of this pandemic stronger. “The only way we can end the silence on mental health is to keep talking about it,” she says. “When I opened up to a friend, I found out she had the same experience that I did. She has anxiety too. Now both of us feel more connected, and I know I’m not alone in this.”

Every one of us is facing this devastating COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s understandable to look inward. But we have to remember the most vulnerable. We can’t forget about the inequalities that will worsen for girls because of this crisis. Now more than ever, we need to continue our work to advance girls’ rights across the world. The only way forward is together — with no one left behind.

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