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Common Mental Health Issues in Teenage Girls (and How to Help)

teenage girl mental health disorders

There has been an alarming and unprecedented rise in mental health issues among teenage girls. A recent CDC study, published in 2023, found that close to 60 percent of teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in the year 2021. This was up from just 36 percent in 2011. On top of that, 30 percent of teen girls surveyed admitted to seriously considering suicide in the last year, and 24 percent actually made a suicide plan. While it’s true that teens of any gender can experience mental health issues, the above percentages were about double those reported by teenage boys.

The symptoms of depression and suicide ideation are not the only issues affecting teenage girls, however. Statistics show that a disproportionate number of teen girls are also affected by anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders. There is a clear mental health crisis happening among adolescent girls, and it’s vital for parents, educators, caregivers, and loved ones to step in and help.

The question is, how? How can we help teenage girls battling mental health issues? And which mental health issues should we keep an eye out for in our daughters or loved ones? We answer these questions, and more, below.

Which Mental Health Issues are Most Common Among Teenage Girls?

The most common mental health disorders in teenagers, no matter their gender, are those that relate to anxiety, depression, eating, substance use, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. However, as detailed above, some disorders affect females more prominently than males.

Below is a look at some of the most common mental health issues in teen girls today:

  1. Depression

Almost 30 percent of adolescent girls have experienced a depressive episode, compared to 11.5% of adolescent males, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Depression is characterized by persistent sadness and hopelessness, a loss of interest or pleasure in once-loved activities, changes in appetite or weight, sleep disturbances, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, difficulty concentrating, and thoughts of death or suicide. Learn more about the signs of depression here.

  1. Anxiety Disorders

About 38 percent of teen girls in the United States have experienced an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders encompass a range of conditions including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and specific phobias. Symptoms of anxiety may include excessive worry, fear, avoidance behaviors, panic attacks, and physical symptoms like trembling, sweating, and rapid heartbeat.

  1. Eating Disorders

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder are more than twice as prevalent in teenage girls than boys. These disorders are often driven by body dysmorphia or struggles with appearance and self-esteem. Eating disorders involve unhealthy attitudes and behaviors surrounding food, weight, and body image.

  1. Self-Harm and Suicide

While self-harm and suicide are not formally mental health disorders, their prevalence among teenagers (and specifically teen girls) cannot be ignored. Self-harm, including cutting, burning, or other forms of deliberate injury to oneself, is often a manifestation of underlying mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or trauma. Suicide ideation is also associated with underlying mental health conditions. According to the new CDC statistics, about 1 in 3 teen girls has seriously considered attempting suicide, which is up 60 percent from the prior decade.

  1. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Studies show that about two-thirds of all children will experience one trauma by the age of 16, and up to 43 percent of girls will go through at least one trauma. This is not surprising, as the CDC reports an increasing number of teenage girls experiencing sexual violence and feelings of unsafety at school. Sometimes, unaddressed trauma can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD may include intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, negative changes in mood and cognition, and heightened sensitivity.

  1. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

About 3.3 million adolescents are struggling with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, making it one of the most common mental health struggles among teens. While ADHD is more commonly associated with boys, it can affect girls as well. Symptoms of ADHD may include difficulty sustaining attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

  1. Substance Use Disorders

We’ve seen a shift in substance use trends among teens, with adolescent females now being more likely to participate in substance using behaviors than their male peers. According to the latest CDC data, about 30 percent of female high school students have drank alcohol, and 20 percent currently use marijuana. While these statistics might not rile concerns at first, it’s important to understand that females are especially susceptible to substance use disorders (also known as addiction). They are also vulnerable to other mental health disorders, which can stem from ongoing substance abuse. Many teen girls might abuse drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with underlying mental health issues.

When Do Teen Girls Develop Mental Health Issues?

Mental health issues can affect anyone, of any age or background. Many parents are surprised to learn that most mental health disorders begin during the adolescent years, with 50 percent occurring by the mere age of 14. Of course, the average age of onset for mental health issues can vary widely depending on the specific disorder.

Before puberty, both girls and boys are equally vulnerable to mental health issues. But by mid-adolescence, there is a clear shift. The Child Mind Institute reports that, during the teenage years, adolescent girls are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder as boys. 

This may have to do with the fact that females go through puberty at an earlier age than males. During puberty, estrogen levels spike and serotonin levels decrease in females. Estrogen is responsible for regulating the brain and women’s immune responses. However, when a female faces ongoing stressors, this peak in estrogen can cause her systems to overreact. This is especially overwhelming for young girls and, without proper coping mechanisms in place, can lead to mental health issues. At the same time, serotonin is a hormone that helps control one’s mood. When serotonin levels decline, it places a person at greater risk of depression.

Puberty is just one factor that may be putting teenage girls at greater risk for mental health issues. Experts also speculate that females gain emotional maturity more quickly, and are typically more emotionally sensitive, which increases their vulnerability to mental health struggles. All the while, females of all ages have unique experiences in life that put them at increased risk for mental illness, including (but not limited to):

  • More likely to experience trauma and abuse in their lifetimes
  • Societal expectations to live, behave, and look a certain way
  • Pressures from social media or friend groups, to fit into a mold

Early signs of mental health issues in teenage girls include sadness, irritability, persistent worry or fear, drastic changes in weight or eating habits, shifts in sleeping patterns, declines in academic performance, social withdrawal, and physical complaints without an explicable cause. Learn more about the signs of mental health disorders in teens here. 

How to Help a Teenage Girl with Mental Health Issues

When it comes to mental illness, early intervention is extremely important. Teenagers battling a mental health issue are more likely to overcome their struggles when they get professional help, and especially when they get that help early in their journey. Early intervention can help prevent devastating consequences, like suicide.

Helping a teenager with a mental health disorder requires patience, empathy, and a supportive approach. Especially for teenage girls, those who have the support of a caring family or guardian will be better positioned to engage in their treatment and find a place of healing. Of course, the ways to help a struggling teen girl will depend on her own unique issues and needs. If you are a concerned loved one, you can take the following steps to help:

  • Encourage open communication in your home
  • Always listen to her, without dismissing or minimizing her experience
  • Validate her feelings and concerns
  • Promote healthy habits at home, such as acts of self-care
  • Teach her coping skills to reduce any difficult symptoms
  • Teach yourself about her experiences and condition(s)
  • Monitor for warning signs of suicide, self-harm, or substance abuse
  • Always be supportive, and let her know your there during times of need
  • Seek professional help, specifically at a place that is specialized in teen mental health issues

It’s worth noting that mental health treatment for teen girls can vary in its approach and methodologies. No treatment is one-size-fits-all, so it’s again important to consider your loved one’s needs. However, certain types of mental health treatment have been proven especially successful for adolescents.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), for example, is cited as one of the most effective therapies for treating teenagers with mental health disorders. CBT is designed to help teenagers overcome negative thought patterns, attitudes, and behaviors. It teaches teens to challenge negativity and get to the root of their negative thoughts. It trains them to recognize negative patterns, cope with difficult thoughts, and think beyond them to find positive ways of being. CBT is particularly helpful for teenage girls struggling with depression or anxiety.

Often, psychotherapies like CBT will be recommended in combination with other treatment modalities, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), family therapy, support groups, mindfulness and meditation, as well as medication. Learn about the best types of treatment services for teenagers here.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends, treatment for teen mental health issues should be institutionalized, overly-medicalized. It should prioritize evidence-based, non-pharmacological approaches like behavioral therapy and family therapy. This approach has been shown to be most effective for struggling teenagers, allowing them to become active and open participants in their treatment journey.

For teen girls specifically, a gender-specific and age-oriented program is recommended. In other words, treatment programs that are designed specifically for females (away from, and without pressure or influence from, the other gender) and that bring together girls of the same age group. Teen girls can benefit from having this sense of inclusion and community, and can feel supported and understood by the other girls walking in similar shoes. All the while, the clinicians in these programs are specially-trained in the experiences of adolescent girls—helping to facilitate the recovery process.

Turnbridge offers gender- and age-specific programs for teenage girls struggling with mental health issues. If you would like to learn more about our programs, please do not hesitate to visit us online here.