Adolescence is a time of change, development and discovery-of finding one's identity. It's a time of realizing and appreciating one's individuality and of learning how to maintain that individuality while interfacing with the surrounding culture.
Unfortunately and uniquely to our time, teenage girls face serious problems today. By junior high, girls have already moved into a dangerous, media-glutted, and sexualized culture that presents them with unattainable goals of perfection: be beautiful, smart, flawless, athletic, well-dressed, cool, sexy, in a good mood and, most importantly, thin. Media images emphasize the importance of appearance in defining social acceptability. Overwhelmed and confused, these about-to-be-women manifest a number of serious symptoms with depression as a baseline.
Depression is the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorder among teenage girls in our country, striking indiscriminately at every class, race, social and economic level. Teenage girls seek relief from depression in self-destructive ways and may not realize where they are heading. Following the examples of their peers, they experiment with cutting, dieting to extremes, use of drugs and alcohol, and promiscuous sex as a way to find relief. These desperate measures are attempts to establish some sense of control over a confusing, unmanageable, and painful inner world.
Cutting can provide temporary relief of depression due to the release of mood elevating endorphins, the body's natural response to injury. A self-produced "high" occurs and can become addictive. Cutting also gives a teenage girl a sense of control as she manipulates her emotional pain into self-inflicted physical pain. Cutting, however, results in ugly scars, infection, and possible death if the cutter miscalculates. Once teenage girls start to cut, they will probably continue.
Excessive dieting usually fails to maintain weight loss and leads to a sense of hopelessness and despair. Consequently, teenage girls enter the realm of eating disorders, either starving themselves (Anorexia) or overeating and throwing up (Bulimia) in a desperate attempt to control weight. Eating disorders can result in osteoporoses, hair loss, weakness, damage to organs, and possible death. Studies in the last decade show that on any given day in America, half of our teenage girls are dieting and one in five young women have eating disorders.
Drugs and alcohol are very appealing to teenage girls who suffer from depression. These easily obtained substances offer a quick escape route from reality and have the added benefit of increasing status with peers. Peer pressure plays an important part here and teenage girls associate drug and alcohol with being fun, wild, and "cool." It also becomes an antidote for social anxiety and self-consciousness and provides a sense of belonging to an inside circle. Substance use easily turns to substance abuse and addiction. The consequences of addiction are too numerous to list here but are known to all of us; the most serious of course, is death.
Sexual promiscuity is a major problem among troubled teenage girls today, particularly if they struggle with depression. Young girls receive diverse messages from their parents, church, school, and the media and have a difficult time finding a value system that makes sense. Confusing sex with love, they easily become victims. Feeling that they are unlovable, that no boy will ever want them, that they will be outcast, rejected, and terrifyingly alone, they are particularly vulnerable and rarely refuse the advances of a male. Promiscuity opens the door to unwanted pregnancy, STDs, AIDS, rape, and violence. Promiscuous behavior flourishes when combined with substance abuse.
How can we help them? Teenage girls need space, time, and safe places to mature and develop on many fronts: physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual. They need a place to be quiet, a place to talk about what they are feeling and thinking, a place to be listened to. They should be given opportunities to contribute, to help, to feel useful and needed, and to be recognized for good works. Ideally, we should change our culture to send out better messages, but to start with we need to focus on our families, our neighborhoods, schools, churches, communities, and ourselves. We need to build a sense of community and be more involved with fighting addiction, monitoring the media, and providing places where teenage girls can feel safe and partake in healthy activities. Improving and enriching the family environment and providing social support and guidance are extremely important factors in decreasing the likelihood of depression in teenage girls.