This week Kate Middleton has been in the news after becoming guest editor at the Huffington Post as part of their new campaign Young Minds Matter to raise awareness of the importance of children’s emotional and psychological wellbeing in the UK. Whilst celebrity endorsements of causes close to my heart are always welcomed, her post fails to mention a significant aspect of the mental health crisis: that young girls and women are disproportionately affected by mental health problems. I work as a practitioner at CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) specialising in working with children and young people affected by domestic violence. I read a lot about how the government is apparently going to tackle this increasingly large problem, but a gendered analysis of the causes of the problem in the first place is seriously lacking. It is my belief that society and in particular patriarchy, is making young women ill and nobody is talking about it.
Men’s rights activists tend to make a lot of the fact that the male suicide rate is 3 times that of women, but you rarely hear about the fact that women are 3 times more likely to develop a ‘neurotic disorder’ than men. This starts in childhood: girls and young women are also 3 times more likely to be admitted to hospital as a result of self harm, approximately 75% of those with an eating disorder are women and women are more likely to receive a diagnosis of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) . Young women are also more likely to have experienced domestic violence in their own relationships and are sexually abused and assaulted at higher rates than young men (69000 rapes were committed against women in 2013 versus 9000 against men).
My aim in highlighting the particular issues faced by young women is not to detract from the fact that young men are clearly suffering too. There is a large and ever growing problem in the UK in terms of mental health and no children should have to suffer in the way that they currently are. However, I do think many of the factors contributing to the problem are built and maintained by gender inequality.
Of the many issues that present themselves to me at work, there are some depressing commonalities: the ever present gaze of social media, sexting and other issues related to pornography and the constant ambition to be thin and beautiful. Young women are facing pressures that no previous generation has ever had to contend with. Their lives are lived in the spotlight and the usual mistakes and transgressions that we all make in adolescence are often captured on camera and shared online before the victim has even figured out what has happened. Young people often derive their self-worth from how many ‘likes’ they get when they post a selfie and this has predictable effects on self-esteem as they increasingly look to others to gain approval.
Porn is more readily available than it has ever been and the impact on young women is particularly devastating. Not only are they encouraged to take naked photos of themselves and send them to their boyfriends, but they are also asked to engage in more and more extreme sexual behaviour which has become normalised. I have seen cases where young boys as young as 10 have acted out scenes from porn they have seen resulting in serious sexual assault.
My post was commissioned specifically because of the link between domestic violence and poor mental helath. Approximately 130,000 children in the UK live in households where the risk from domestic violence is considered as ‘high’ – an estimated 3 out of every 30 may have witnessed or been affected by domestic violence. The evidence demonstrates that these young people are more likely to be physically or emotionally abused themselves and that witnessing domestic abuse can be as traumatic as experiencing it. The kids I see are mostly suffering from the effects of trauma – they are hypervigilant because their environment is so dangerous and unpredictable that they struggle to relax and they often develop anxiety or depression as a result. Nightmares and obsessive compulsive symptoms are also common. Some children ‘externalise’ and act out in school, having frequent temper tantrums and outbursts whilst others withdraw and turn to self harm as a coping mechanism. When a woman is living with everyday violence in her home, it is difficult for her to pay attention to her children’s needs as she is often in a traumatised and depressed state. There is a strong link between maternal depression and poor outcomes for children, in part due to the poor attachment that is common in families affected by male violence.
Mental health problems rarely come out of nowhere. It is my belief that the gendered violence against women and girls is a massive contributing factor to the current problem in the UK. Add to this the particular societal pressures on young women today and it’s easy to see why they are becoming ill. In trying to tackle the crisis in this country, let’s not forget that we need a considered feminist analysis too. If we genuinely want the mental health of our young people to improve then we have to start campaigning for greater gender equality and raise awareness of the causes of the problem in the first place.