A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) paints a concerning picture of the mental health crisis among girls in the United States.
In 2021, nearly 60% of these young women reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, while nearly 20% had experienced sexual violence, and a quarter had made plans for suicide.
As clinicians, educators, and policymakers nationwide race to find solutions, a Chicago-based program is emerging as a potential model to help girls, especially those of color, cope with the trauma and distress they often face.
Youth Guidance, an education nonprofit, introduced the Working on Womanhood program (WOW) in 11 Chicago public high schools in 2011. This school-based initiative, rooted in counseling and mentoring, was conceived by Black and Latina women who recognized a significant gap in mental health support for girls within their community.
Over the past decade, Ngozi Harris, WOW’s director of program and staff development, has worked closely with hundreds of girls who have endured unimaginable hardships, including witnessing the loss of loved ones, surviving sexual assault, or grappling with hunger and homelessness.
Extensive research underscores the link between childhood trauma of this magnitude and later mental health challenges, such as depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts. However, Harris points out that mental health resources are often disproportionately directed towards boys, as their symptoms tend to be more overt.
The Urgent Need for Gender-Sensitive Mental Health Support To Handle Mental Health Crisis Among Girls
The CDC’s recent findings highlight the urgent need for gender-sensitive mental health support, especially among adolescent girls who are navigating the complex challenges of adolescence. Many of these young women carry the weight of trauma, yet their suffering often goes unnoticed or unaddressed.
The WOW Program: A Response to the Crisis
The Working on Womanhood program seeks to fill this crucial gap by providing a safe and nurturing space for girls to address their trauma and develop vital coping skills. WOW’s approach is grounded in the belief that young women can thrive when they are heard, understood, and supported.
Over the course of a decade, WOW has made a profound impact on the lives of countless girls in Chicago. Through a combination of individual and group therapy, mentorship, and skill-building workshops, participants have found a renewed sense of hope and resilience.
By addressing the root causes of their distress, girls in the program gain the tools to break free from the cycle of trauma and mental health challenges.
One of the program’s core strengths lies in challenging gender stereotypes that often hinder girls from seeking help.
While boys’ mental health struggles may manifest more conspicuously, girls frequently internalize their pain, leading to a different set of challenges. WOW creates a safe space for girls to express themselves, fostering a sense of community and mutual support.
As the mental health crisis among girls continues to escalate, the Working on Womanhood program in Chicago offers a ray of hope. Its success in addressing the unique needs of girls, particularly girls of color, serves as a model that could be replicated throughout the United States.
By acknowledging and validating the experiences of young women, providing them with a platform to heal and grow, and challenging societal norms, WOW exemplifies the kind of comprehensive, gender-sensitive mental health support that is urgently needed.
In a time of growing concern about the mental health of high school girls across the nation, the Working on Womanhood program stands as a testament to the power of community-driven, gender-sensitive mental health support.
As this crisis continues to unfold, programs like WOW offer a beacon of hope, reminding us all of the transformative potential of understanding, compassion, and comprehensive care for the girls who need it most.