Pressure from schools and families to live up to society’s expectations of the “ideal” girl and be “good” causes mental health issues in teenage girls, a new study has shown.
The research found cultures in school and at home contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety in girls from all backgrounds.
Furthermore, pressure to achieve high grades, be popular and beautiful, and participate in extra-curricular activities can lead to mental health issues.
A team of researchers from the University of Exeter, Dr Lauren Stentiford, Dr George Koutsouris and Dr Alexandra Allan reviewed existing research into girls’ mental health emerging from peer-reviewed qualitative literature between 1990 and 2021. They found 11 studies from around the world.
Mental health issues and school culture
The evidence suggested that older teenage girls are at greater risk of developing mental health issues than boys, and the located studies indicated that mental health issues were more likely in some way related to the pressures to obtain high grades at school.
Social pressures for girls to be “good” students, “well-rounded” and high achievers had an impact on how teachers, families and pupils understood achievements and pressures.
Dr Stentiford, who led the study, published in the journal Educational Review, said “We hope our work has drawn further attention to the growing issue of girls’ mental ill-health, how schools might be implicated in its production, and might spark further conversation around this important and pressing topic.
“We found much anxiety around achievement was grounded in fears for the future – and more specifically, the need to have a ‘good’ future and be ‘happy’. This included getting into a ‘good’ university and securing a high-status job with good pay. Girls felt that if they did not achieve high grades at school and fulfil these goals, they would have ‘failed’ and be unhappy.”
The impact of social class and ethnic minority
Dr Stentiford commented further that “Social class influenced the degree to which girls experienced fears. Those from middle or upper-class backgrounds often felt pressures to ‘live up to’ their parents’ or siblings’ standards and to emulate their successful careers and lifestyles. Those from lower-middle or working-class backgrounds could feel that their parents wanted them to do better than themselves so that they might have brighter futures.
“Some girls from ethnic minority backgrounds appeared to feel a heavy sense of responsibility to do well at school to reward their parents for the sacrifices they had made – such as moving country to access a ‘good’ education system.
“It was when pressures to achieve academically were felt in the extreme and were ‘imbalanced’ that anxiety and mental health issues could be experienced – ranging from relatively mild and self-manageable symptoms to clinically diagnosable conditions. Factors that helped achieve a balance were eating and sleeping well, socialising, and keeping a level perspective.
“The sense of competition among girls to live up to each other’s achievements also contributed, especially in all-girls schools.”
Research showed how the competition was embedded in the culture of schools, including through teacher expectations, in institutionalised ‘performance’ regimes, and in girls’ often fierce desire to outdo their peers.