Prioritizing Mental Health for Adolescent Girls

by Christina Mallie

The difficult circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic have led to increased attention on mental health.  While this has been an experience no one anticipated or wanted, the silver lining may be that organizations that work with marginalized young people are giving mental health higher priority and recognizing how important it is to sustain our other roles and responsibilities. 

Girls constantly face adversity and are often survivors of various traumas, including early marriage, domestic violence, dropping out of school, or having children. Thus, on any given day they are likely to struggle with mental health. Stories from different girls in a variety of settings share similarities across different contexts: 

The anger/frustration/hurt when a boy’s or man’s life is prioritized over a girl’s or woman’s: She has to stay home from school and take care of things while her brothers go to school . . .  

Various forms of gendered violence and abuse:  I was raped now I’m not allowed to live at my home because I am being punished for having had sex before marriage. 

The pain of not being able to stay a child as long as she should:  I run the household, wake up at dawn to cook and sweep and dress and feed the children before they go to school.  

These are not only human rights issues and examples of everyday gender discrimination and violence, but they are also mental health issues.  Both in my own cultural context (US) and in Global South places like Goma, DRC, mental health is often considered a luxury, something to be considered after other more basic needs like food and shelter have been met.  In truth, mental health is foundational and essential. Neuroscience research from a trauma-informed perspective shows how our brains work – being able to engage in the basic things, like adding up the total cost of one’s purchases or talking with others, is impossible to accomplish if stress levels are too high. Taking care of one’s mental health must come before being able to engage.  

Since 2016, Colors of Connection’s own work with girls in Goma, DRC has focused on finding ways to support girls’ mental health using an arts-based approach that is accessible for low-resource environments.  We’ve dedicated research and practice to see how arts and creativity can play a role to support girls with self-soothing, relationship-building, creating safe spaces, imagining identities beyond restrictive gender roles, and expressing emotions.  

For example, one Kinesthetic activity that involves doodling taps into and calms the mid brain and brain stem, reducing anxiety, stress and fear, and thus supporting self-regulation for participants.  As a benefit, participants can regain cognitive function, form attachment and attunement with others, and focus and experience pleasure.  By encouraging attunement with others, this activity helps participants connect with others in the group and build social support around this common experience. 

Photo Credit: Colors of Connection

We advocate for creativity in the service of mental health for girls because it is possible to do in low-resource environments – it does not require a clinical setting or a specialized degree, it is universal (all cultures have creative practices), and it is a natural match for the adolescent stage of development (we do want to note that this does not remove the need for specialized care or referrals). We are in the process of developing different artistic creative activities from a range of mediums and modalities, and with our new program Girl Awakening in Goma, we are hopeful that these tools can be further refined and tested.  Still, more work is needed to evaluate impacts and to include Indigenous practices to ensure that activities connect with participants’ identities and cultures.   

It is exciting that while this is underway, there seems to be increasing acceptance in the field of mental health of approaches beyond the individual counseling model. The WHO put out its first report in 2019 on the evidence of arts in improving health, referencing over 990 publications. The global mental health field is also recognizing that an individual’s psychological health is linked to socio-structural issues. There is greater acceptance that issues should not simply be seen as individual, but connect to the larger racial, economic, and gender structures that impact the individual. The false dichotomy is disappearing between the internal psychological health and one’s relationship to society.  Girls are a large social group whose trauma largely goes unrecognized because weathering it and ignoring their self-care is seen as their cultural duty – by themselves and others.  Now is moment to shift this perspective and invest in the mental health needs of women and girls. 



Editors Note: If you’re interested in creating arts-based programming to address mental health among adolescent girls, we recommend utilizing the Creative Assets and Program Content Guide: To Build Social and Emotional Learning and Promote Trauma Mitigation and Healing.