The MLO Minute: “Nearly 1 In 3 High School Girls Seriously Contemplated Suicide In 2021” —
February 2023: Last week, the CDC released a troubling report showing that teenage girls across the United States are “engulfed in a growing wave of violence and trauma.” The 89-page report produced responses from 17,232 American students and revealed an alarming disparity between girls’ and boys’ experiences — with girls experiencing over twice the mental health challenges as boys.
The report says that almost 1 in 3 high school girls seriously contemplated suicide in 2021, representing a nearly 60 percent increase since 2011. In addition, 57 percent feel “persistently sad or hopeless”. Girls were more than twice as likely to have experienced such feelings as boys.
The new report also confirms ongoing and extreme distress among teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning (LGBQ+). “Close to 70 percent of LGBQ+ students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year and more than 50 percent had poor mental health during the past 30 days,” and almost 25 percent attempted suicide during the past year. More than 40 percent of high school students felt so sad or hopeless that they could not participate in usual activities like schoolwork or sports for at least two weeks out of the year.
Commentators have weighed in with potential explanations for the gender difference, including the rise of social media, changes in parenting approaches, the pandemic, and political instability — but the report highlighted one major aggravating factor– almost 20 percent of female students experienced sexual violence during the past year; in 2019, the figure stood at 11 percent.
Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, said that an increase in sexual violence towards girls almost certainly contributed to the alarming spike in their depressive symptoms. “If you think about every 10 teen girls that you know, at least one and possibly more has been raped, and that is the highest level we’ve ever seen,” she said. “We are really alarmed.” Ethier said that we need to more precisely determine exactly who is perpetrating the violence against teenage girls and how it can be stopped. Unfortunately, one effect of the pandemic was a rise in domestic violence which may have heightened the rates of sexual assault on teenage girls.
Schools have a duty to support students experiencing mental health crises which impair their functioning in the educational environment. At the same time, it is asking a great deal to task schools alone with this burden–with teachers who are often underpaid and untrained to address the wave of mental health problems. However, schools are the gateway to services for many young people. Schools can provide health, behavioral, and mental health services directly or establish referral systems to connect students to community sources of care. At the very least, public and charter schools must offer psychological, counseling, and therapeutic interventions which are necessary to allow children with emotional disabilities to be successful in school.
Anna King, president of the National PTA, suggested last week that schools need to step up in addressing the crisis. “We suggest that our schools start by educating their staff and their families on what mental health is, what supports are available and how they can access their services,” she said. She added that Congress needs to provide more funding to treat kids who’ve suffered trauma.
Additionally, under Title IX regulations, schools must promptly respond if any staff member has notice of allegations of sexual harassment or violence utilizing consistent and transparent grievance procedures. Schools violate their Title IX obligations when its response to sexual harassment is clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.
Thankfully, many universities are now aggressively addressing the epidemic of sexual violence from the start of freshman orientation by insisting that it is everyone’s responsibility to address sexual misconduct and to intervene when it is occurring; these programs make clear that a bystander who watches sexual violence is complicit if no action is taken. One local university is making clear that it is everyone’s responsibility to intervene—i.e., “It’s on us” to stop sexual violence.
One thing is clear regarding this issue — what we’ve been doing as a society isn’t adequate and a greater recognition of the problem and action to address it is required.
Our firm regularly addresses matters of sexual violence in the schools and we use legal tools such as Title IX, the Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA to address these matters on behalf of students. We also use these laws and other federal and state special education/disability laws to pursue counseling and therapeutic services for students with depression and other mental health issues. Our initial consultation is always free of charge and many cases are handled on a contingency basis without cost to families. Click here today to contact us!