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Recognizing Effects of Stress on Girls

As a psychologist who has been evaluating and treating adolescents since 1977, I know this for sure: More and more, my colleagues and I are seeing this kind of fallout from a myriad of stressors. A psychologist friend who has been on staff for seventeen years at a large, regional high school recently told me, "By November of this year, we had more crises than during the entire school year last year." She is not alone. Guidance counselors from across the country are reporting a sharp increase in psychological crises among students and, as a result, an overwhelming use of school resources.

National statistics confirm these anecdotal data. Serious mental health problems are not only increasing, but also occurring earlier in childhood. Psychologist Jean Twenge, of Case Western Reserve University, found that normal children ages nine to seventeen are presenting more symptoms of anxiety today than those treated for psychiatric disorders fifty years ago. A study conducted at Yale New Haven Children's Hospital found that within a four-year period in the mid-1990s, pediatric psychiatric emergency room visits rose 59 percent. Obsessive-compulsive disorders among youth are also skyrocketing.

Many stressed-out girls are turning to risk-taking behaviors such as using substances and engaging in inappropriate sexual activity. As one school administrator told me, "Girls who have to do well in school are very dutiful on the surface. They're not going to violate the dress code, for example. But their interior lives are much more buried. They get into a lot of dreadful things. Girls can give you all the information about drugs and alcohol and sexual behaviors. But as soon as they get away from schools and parents, they just unload. Weekends are pretty wild around here."

Although these teens are often thought of as troubled or rebellious, their behavior is actually best understood as attempts at self medicating for anxiety and despair. This may explain a disturbing trend: For the first time ever, underage girls are using mind-numbing substances such as alcohol and tobacco at the same rate as boys.

Equally worrisome, these vulnerabilities to stress do not end with high school graduation. Ironically, with all the machinations of trying to get girls accepted into college, they are not doing as well once they get there.

The Higher Educational Research Institute at UCLA, for example, found that the emotional well-being of freshmen hit an all time low at the beginning of the 2001-2002 academic year, even before September 11, 2001. As an article on student wellness in the American Psychological Association's Monitor on Psychology described, "At campuses all across the country, more undergraduate and graduate students are reporting depression, substance use, eating disorders, learning disabilities, and, most common, problems adapting to college life." Indeed, a 2004 study of 47,200 college students conducted by the American College Health Association found that 45 percent reported feeling so depressed during the past school year that it was difficult for them to function.

In response, a new federal law was enacted in October 2004 to provide grants to universities across the country to enhance mental health services on campuses. In addition to traditional therapies, colleges have begun to offer stressed-out students a variety of services--from massages to dog cuddling to biofeedback to stress-free zones.

But we have to do our part as well. To send off teens to college well prepared, we have to encourage them to develop healthier attitudes about achievement and better strategies for coping with stress. Once again, girls need more help in these areas. The same UCLA study found that freshman coeds rated their sense of health and well-being lower than that of boys--and were twice as likely to report feeling frequently overwhelmed by everything they had to do.

By hiding their suffering, however, girls deprive themselves of potential understanding, reassurance, and support from adults. If they are not aware of their teen daughters' inner lives and true experiences, how can even the most loving mothers and fathers know how to help them? Similarly, if teachers have no idea what is causing a girl to disinvest from school or sabotage her own success, how can they best intervene?

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From Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure by Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here.


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