“We’re almost never fine”: Young people on girls’ mental health

April 12, 2023
By Catherine Rolfe
April 12, 2023
~7 min read

A CDC report recently found that 57% of teenage girls in the U.S. reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in 2021 — double the rate of boys, and the highest level reported over the past decade. Nearly 25% of girls reported making a suicide plan.

Officials noted that no one factor caused the increase; instead, they suggest that the pandemic, social media, stressors at school, online misinformation and societal conflict can all contribute. And, the report found that nearly 70% of the LGBTQIA+ people surveyed experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year, and more than 50% had poor mental health during the last 30 days.

This mental health crisis has unique effects for girls, but we also know it goes beyond gender identity. Everyone is affected by mental health, and everyone can be an ally for someone in need. So, we asked two young people who are part of Plan International USA’s leadership network to tell us how they see the mental health crisis in their own lives. Here’s what they had to say.


What does mental health mean to you?

Riya, 15: To me, mental health means keeping my mind healthy, free of stress and being emotionally stable to take on the challenges of life.

Garrett, 20: As a gay male growing up in the deep south, I frequently feel very isolated. My mental health journey has been very lonely, and this did not change until going to college. This makes sense, sociologically, as stigma plays a major role in identity, especially at young ages. But I am a White male who is able to “pass” (portray oneself as a member of a social group other than the one they belong to) as straight. I was also able to afford mental health treatment and I had a great support system. So, for all intents and purposes, I was guaranteed to be okay in the end.

My identity fits (almost) perfectly with those who maintain power. But most members of marginalized communities do not have this experience. Black people, women, and especially Black women, cannot typically mask their skin color or gender, which carry so much stigma. This makes them vulnerable to both systemic and societal racism and misogyny, worsening their mental health and stripping them of equal opportunity. Mental health has a lot to do with eliminating these stigmas and fighting for social justice and equality in society. An individual’s mental health has a lot to do with their place in society and the identities and roles that society places on them.

We are thought by many, especially older generations, as being "dramatic" or "weak." In reality, we face unique challenges that older generations did not face. — Garrett, 20

Do you think mental health is a problem at your school? Why/why not?

Riya: Mental health is an issue at every school. Everyone that isn’t or hasn’t experienced the current generation of high school does not understand the extensive social, academic and familial pressures that are placed upon us and that we place upon ourselves. Most high schoolers are working hard 24/7 trying to achieve their dreams of getting into their perfect college (because that’s all anything seems to be about these days) while balancing a respectable social life.

Lots of people say “Oh you’re young, just enjoy yourself,” not realizing that it’s because we’re stuck in that older-but-still-youngish phase of life that we’re not able to enjoy ourselves, thus leading to mental health problems and even depression.

Garrett: Mental health is a problem at my school because it is a problem everywhere. In fact, many youth that suffer with mental health are neglected, and others are abused or bullied because of their struggles. In addition to physical markers like skin color or gender, stigma is also attached to mental health, and youth are especially vulnerable here.

We are thought by many, especially older generations, as being “dramatic” or “weak.” In reality, we face unique challenges that older generations did not face. These challenges are concurrent with issues of environmental justice, growing up in an inflated economy dominated by the 1% and the politicization of identity (gender and sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, skin color and more). A sense of anomie, a disconnect from society, from being unable to achieve institutionalized goals, is rampant among marginalized communities. This leads to a myriad of mental health issues, especially suicide.

What I’ve noticed is that people will ask girls if they’re okay and once they get that standard response of "I’m fine," they’ll stop trying. Don’t stop trying. — Riya, 15

Do you think that girls experience unique mental health challenges? Why/why not?

Riya: Yes, I do think that girls experience unique mental health challenges because I feel like there’s more expectation for girls to look or act or do things a certain way, whether it’s the way they act, dress, etc. A guy could show up to school in sweats and a hoodie and it would be considered “cool,” but a girl could do the same thing and it would seem like she isn’t trying hard enough.

Girls also tend to put more pressure (i.e., academically) on themselves because of those expectations (this I know from firsthand experience). These seem like totally minor things, but they do have a significant amount of influence on the way that we see ourselves and the people we interact with.

Girls also have an extra physical and mental obstacle to overcome: their menstrual cycle. It’s been scientifically proven that girls and boys have differences in hormone fluctuations and brain chemistry which could also affect their levels of anxiety. I don’t think that it’s strictly physical or psychological differences that affect girls’ mental health challenges, but I do think that a combination of both results in more mental deterrents for girls over boys.

Garrett: Girls absolutely experience unique mental health challenges. From oversexualization to being legal property of their husbands, women have been historically oppressed (and still are). There are many long-term effects of this oppression.

Even in clinical trials, girls have historically been excluded from participation. This means that a majority of modern medicine has been tested primarily on men and does not take into account the biological differences between men and women, such as metabolism. Because of this, women are 50-75% more likely to experience adverse drug reactions, putting them at greater risk when taking medication for mental health treatment.


What do you wish more people knew about the state of girls’ mental health in the U.S.?

Riya: I wish that more people knew that when girls say they’re fine, we’re almost never fine. If you can sense something off about a girl you know, your instincts are probably right. This does not mean pressuring her until she talks (that could simply lead to further mental retraction), it simply means that you need to be aware that she is not okay at that moment and be prepared if she decides to talk about it.

Until then, treat her kindly. What I’ve noticed is that people will ask girls if they’re okay and once they get that standard response of “I’m fine,” they’ll stop trying. Don’t stop trying. We may not express it very well, and we may come across as moody, but giving up on us will only heighten the mental issues we’re facing.

Garrett: The current state of girls’ mental health is a result of historic oppression. People (especially White men) see women and girls in the workforce or at the polls and seem to forget how they got here. Women’s place in society today was fought for, and women are still fighting. Progress has been made, but the fight for gender equality is not over. I wish that more people understood that.

It is infuriating that we have the social science proving the inequalities between men and women, yet local and world leaders refuse to acknowledge it. As a White man myself, I have an incalculable amount of privilege and I can see the inequalities between myself and my female colleagues every day. We must continue elevating girls and women to an equal place in society so that girls can make these policies and advancements for gender equality themselves.

As long as governments and bureaucracies are dominated by White men who simply do not care about equality for women, nothing will change. We have to elect more women into office and leadership positions, and we have to educate and empower girls across the world to do this. And – I cannot stress this enough – we have to ensure intersectional feminism in our practices to empower Black women and girls, who face even more unique challenges than their White female colleagues and classmates.


If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health-related distress, help is available. The National Alliance on Mental Illness runs a hotline you can text at 62640 or call at 800.950.6264. You can also call or text the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.