Girls and women are currently in a paradoxical place when it comes to their wellbeing. Outwardly they are excelling in multiple fields, including education, sport, science and politics. Yet figures confirm increasing anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm, particularly and disproportionately in young girls. So what can be done to help them feel as well on the inside as they appear to be performing on the outside?
There is no doubt that the modern world poses many challenges, such as the fierce competition to “have it all” and to stay ahead of the game. This creates a perfectionist “Supergirl” culture where Fomo (fear of missing out) is common parlance, driving excessive and anxious behaviours, which can lead to “burn out”. Of course we won’t survive without fear and yet the challenge is to discern between the fears that serve us and those that hold us back.
There are many components to resilience, or the ability to adapt to life’s challenges, such as flexibility, optimism, social competence, emotional management and positive self-esteem. One area of resilience that I think girls and women will benefit from building is to find ways to face fear through building courage – mental, intellectual, emotional and moral.
Aristotle says courage is “the mean between recklessness and fear”. The courageous person fears what should be feared, but endures fear with confidence for the right reasons. Mental courage at a time of new challenges is to think of bold new ideas and have the courage to implement them and face the consequences. It’s to learn self-regulation, to train your thinking to change the narrative of negative assumptions, and instead of an attitude of self-blame and self-bullying, to focus on what’s right rather than what’s wrong and believe that you can achieve through effort and dedication. This means noticing when you feel strong and competent and adopting a ‘done’ list alongside a ‘to do’ one.
In a world of growing perfectionism, where difference, scorn and ridicule is feared, whether it’s about body shape or size, social popularity or capability, developing intellectual courage to not fear what others think and to learn self-acceptance creates inner strength.
Parents and schools play a valuable role in helping create a “courage culture” by providing an arena in which children and young people can flourish. They can do this by enabling them to follow a passion, encouraging self-realisation, providing opportunities for effectiveness and teaching them to “roll with the punches”, whilst also providing them a positive role in connecting.
However, we also need to keep in mind that resilience alone will not keep mental illness at bay. Supporting young people appropriately to get back on track through early awareness and intervention that’s targeted, evidence based and readily available, is crucial.
By providing accessible mental health services together with a focus on boosting buoyancy and adaptation to the challenges children and young people face (let’s not forget boys in this, they may not have reported as high percentages of depression in the current study but male mental ill health is just as much a concern) we can hopefully enable a resilient and thriving new generation.
Dr Nihara Krause is a consultant clinical psychologist
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