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Shekinah Jackson went into her first day at Chicago Vocational High School on the city’s South Side knowing she would spend the next four years on her own.
She has been bullied for years for her weight, the color of her skin, and the way she speaks. In her seventh grade, her classmates called her stupid in science after she asked a question. Since then, she stopped speaking during her classes.
By her freshman year in 2019, Jackson had come to believe that mockery. She tried to disappear at her school—her head down, sitting back, wearing her hoodie.
“I really felt like I wasn’t good enough for anyone,” Jackson said in an interview last month.
Jackson may have felt alone, but she is also part of what experts are calling a mental health crisis for girls.
Recent report In 2021, nearly 60% of U.S. high school girls felt persistent sadness or hopelessness, nearly 20% experienced sexual violence, and 25% made suicide plans, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. was there. Clinicians, educators, and policy makers across the country are racing to find solutions.a recent research It suggests a Chicago-based program could serve as a model to help girls across the country, especially girls of color, cope with the trauma and pain that many face.
Educational nonprofit organization Youth Guidance launches program Commitment to femininity — or WOW This school-based counseling and mentoring program was developed by Black and Latinx women to support girls in communities who have experienced severe trauma and had little access to mental health supports. .
Over the past decade, Ngozi Harris, WOW’s director of programs and staff development, has helped hundreds of people watch their loved ones die in front of their eyes, be raped, or endure hunger and homelessness. I’ve been working with girls. Extensive research shows that this type of childhood trauma often leads to problems such as: depression, addiction, suicide. But Harris said mental health resources are often focused on boys, whose symptoms tend to be more pronounced.
“The girls’ story is that they don’t need help because they’re getting straight A’s. Meanwhile, my sons are acting out, so they need more support,” Harris said. Ta. “It’s important for us that everyone understands that just because she can sit still doesn’t mean she isn’t going through something and needs support. .”
WOW counselors meet with small groups of girls weekly during the school year and use techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy to help girls develop healthy coping skills and gain more control over their lives. .
The program clicked for freshman Shekinah Jackson. Her counselor, Noralisa Malloy, handed out mirrors to Jackson and the other six girls in the group and asked them to describe what they saw.
“‘I’m ugly. I’m not good enough. People call me loud. People call me fat. I’m too skinny,'” Malloy said of what the girls shared. I remember. “They saw all the flaws in their heads.”
For the first time, she realized that other girls felt the same way she did.
“It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” Jackson said. “I’m so glad I don’t have to hold back anymore, and that I can talk to someone about this and that I’m not going through it all on my own. I’m starting to want to get more help.” Ta.”
The very next week, Jackson needed help in his biology class. Ever since she was called by the boy when she was in seventh grade, she had avoided asking her teacher any questions. With her classmates’ eyes on her, Ms. Jackson walked from the back of the class to the teacher’s desk.
“I was the only one in the back of my head saying, ‘Okay, okay.’ No one’s going to say anything. It’s okay. You can go there and ask for help,” she said. Ta.
And that’s when Jackson came out of his shell, Malloy said.
“Her head was held high. She walks down the hall with such confidence, not caring what people are saying or doing,” she said. .
Girls like Jackson have thrived since WOW’s inception. But Harris knew that for the program to become a national model for helping girls of color cope with trauma, the organization needed more than just anecdotes.
“We wanted to be able to say that we’re not only successful in this area and that we’re getting results, but we’re getting results,” Harris said. “We wanted the data to show that as well.”
Assessing the impact of WOW
There is relatively little research on the mental health of Black and Latina women in the United States.
In 2017, researchers Monica Batt, Jonathan Gurian, and Harold Pollack from the University of Chicago education lab He led a study of female students at 10 city high schools and found that many of them regularly witness physical assault or the sudden (and sometimes violent) death of a loved one. . More than a third reported Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorderPTSD symptoms, such as persistent negative thoughts and constant vigilance, are twice as common among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
“Frankly, when we started seeing these numbers, we thought there was something wrong with our measurements,” said lead researcher Monica Butt. “I thought maybe our analysis was wrong.”
Bhatt and her team then conducted the following study. randomly selected 1,232 high school girls will receive WOW counseling and mentoring to test the effectiveness of the program.of research The main objective was to see if the program improved the girls’ mental health, specifically anxiety, depression, and PTSD, as well as their grades and attendance.
Researchers found no significant reductions in clinical mental health diagnoses compared to girls not enrolled in WOW, but anxiety (10%), depression (14%), and PTSD (22%). %) were confirmed to have significantly reduced their symptoms.
Sheretta Butler Burns, a developmental psychologist at the University of Washington who is not affiliated with the study, said that WOW is one of the few school-based mental health programs designed for girls of color that rigorous evaluations have shown such affirmations. He said it was one of the first programs to show positive results. .
“We need this program,” said Butler Burns, who studies the mental health and academic performance of black girls. “And that’s needed in many areas, given what girls, especially girls of color, are going through.”
However, the study found that WOW had no effect on girls’ grades or attendance. Lead researcher Butt said most of the girls entered the program with high attendance rates and at least a B average, and WOW’s focus is on improving mental health, not grades. He said this was natural.
She said the findings cast doubt on the notion that academic improvement should be a key component of school-based mental health programs.
“We are forced to think about whether this is important at all.We are forced to think about the harm done to girls who are carrying a really heavy burden, even though they are acting out what society expects of them. It’s all about mitigation,” she said.
Increasing attention and funding
The research results are Published in Science Advances magazine June came at a time when experts say policymakers are focusing on girls’ mental health.
States controlled by Republicans and Democrats poured in at least $8.5 billion. federal government funding Introduced in school mental health from 2021, many state They are pouring in additional funds from their own coffers. Federal officials are also making it easier for Medicaid to pay for school-based mental health services.
CDC Director Kathleen Ethier said there are evidence-based programs that are proven to be effective. Youth and School Health Division. Proven strategies include connecting children to counselors and educating youth about mental health.
According to research Children who feel connected to adults at school are more likely to have poor mental health, use illegal drugs, and suicidal thoughts and sexual violence.
“All of this is about increasing a sense of connectedness, which makes young people less likely to become involved in violence, perpetuate violence, and experience trauma,” Ethier said. Or if something were to happen to them, there would be an adult nearby. ”
WOW’s ability to reduce PTSD symptoms is particularly promising, Ethier said, adding that she hopes more schools will implement this type of evidence-based intervention.
big barriers remain
1 in 5 schools unfilled jobs As of last September, mental health workers were eligible, and few districts met the recommended rates. From student to school psychologist or school counselor.meanwhile state and federal lawmaker We are investing in hiring and training more mental health providers, and some schools are switched to telemedicineExperts predict it will take years for the workforce to grow enough to meet demand.
of larger political struggle Parents’ beliefs about what their children should be taught in school can also delay adoption.Heidi Sipe, Superintendent of Schools in a Hispanic-majority District Umatilla School District In northern Oregon, some parents say they fear their children will be taken away if they use mental health services at school.
“I respect the role of parents,” Sipe said. “But if we don’t offer a wide range of services, if we don’t try to engage in dialogue with the opposition, then we’re failing our students.”
Sipe said once children are able to talk, their parents usually come by. But she has colleagues across the country who are losing that battle and are struggling to add new mental health services.
Researchers like Butler Burns of the University of Washington also say it’s important to make sure the interventions schools invest in are culturally appropriate for the students they’re trying to help.
Professor Butler-Burns said more mainstream programs often omit the experiences of people of color, so if schools want to support black and Latinx girls, they need to address racism and racism among girls. She said they should look for programs designed specifically for Black and Latinx female students that include talking about the role of sexism. ” adopt familiar cultural and family values and live a life focused on empowerment in addition to treatment.
WOW is looking forward with confidence
From just 11 schools in Chicago in 2011, WOW now operates in 89 schools in Illinois, Kansas City, Boston and Dallas, serving more than 4,000 girls. Ngozi-Harris said more school districts have reached out to help since the study was published.
Shekinah Jackson said the skills she learned at WOW helped her overcome problems throughout her high school career, from getting better grades to getting out of a toxic relationship by the end of her senior year.
“I learned that it’s okay to reach out and ask for help,” she says. “And it’s okay to not be okay sometimes. It’s okay to cry. But you don’t have to sit there and suffer.”
She said WOW has broadened her horizons and also given her the confidence to travel 180 miles from home to begin her freshman year at Eastern Illinois University, where she wants to study psychology.
“To be honest, I’m not scared of anything right now,” Jackson said. “I feel like I can overcome whatever happens.”
At 14 years old, Jackson was convinced she would never be good enough. Jackson, 18, is confident.
The origin of this story is Health Policy Podcast Tradeoffs, a partner at Side Effects Public Media. Dan Gorenstein is the editor-in-chief of Tradeoffs and Ryan Levi is the show’s producer. this story The study on “Addressing Femininity” was partially funded by Arnold Ventures, which also supports Tradeoffs.
Side Effects Public Media is a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI in Indianapolis. We are affiliated with His NPR stations in the Midwest and surrounding areas, including Missouri’s He KBIA and KCUR, Iowa Public Radio, Ohio’s Ideastream, Kentucky’s He WFPL, and more.
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