The government is putting "teaching resilience" at the heart of it's new national curriculum plans. We should not forget that a child’s strength and ability to thrive are best supported by environments that facilitate, protect and promote children’s safety and wellbeing. By Jemima Olchawski, Chief Executive of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk.

As evidence grows of a mental health crisis among children and young people, especially girls and young women, it is welcome that steps have been taken to make mental health part of the national curriculum.

"We know that girls do not feel safe but the current policy debate about girls’ mental health focusses instead on the impact of social media."

Helping children to build the skills to be resilient and manage their mental health is important. However, it is also important that we don’t allow a narrative around resilience to obscure the wider causes of and solutions to the mental health crisis.

A focus on resilience risks individualising the causes of poor mental health and not taking the wider context into account. It also risks ignoring the vital difference that access to timely quality support can have.

Teenage girls are one of the groups in the population that raise greatest concern, in terms of the prevalence of mental health problems. Self-harm has risen 68 per cent among girls in the last 10 years. A quarter of girls are depressed and they make up three quarters of those in NSPCC suicide counselling.

We also know that girls do not feel safe, a third have experienced unwanted sexual contact and peer on peer sexual assaults are rising. The current policy debate about girls’ mental health rarely takes this into account, often focussing instead on the impact of social media (with the unhelpful accompanying recommendation that girls should simply step away from the smart phone). At the root of many young women’s mental health problems are likely to be experiences of abuse and trauma.  For example, Agenda’s research has shown a quarter of all women who have a mental health problem experienced abuse as a child.

Insecure foundations

Poverty is also a key driver of poor mental health among girls. Living with the insecurity of homelessness or in a household where putting food on the table is a struggle will take a real toll on young people’s wellbeing. Not to mention that external resources can make recovery from a mental health problem much easier – if for instance your parents are able to pay for therapeutic support. Of course, non-financial resources matter too, with stable and loving family relationships an invaluable part of the mix in young people’s wellbeing regardless of income. It’s vital that we recognise the role of these wider assets that are often outside of an individual’s control.

For children living with poverty and abuse trying to make them ‘resilient’ can unfairly place the onus on them to deal with something that should not be happening to them. It can also ignore the ways in which many children are already incredibly resilient, having dealt with trauma and experiences that would floor many of us as adults.

Genuinely tackling concerns about mental health will require addressing the root causes; that means addressing poverty, social norms that mean many girls face sexual harassment and abuse in school and listening to girls when they raise concerns rather than shutting them down. In addition, girls need practical help and expert support to help them improve their mental health – resilience might be part of this but can’t replace appropriate expert support.

Rather than seeing resilience as a quality some people have and that others can learn we have to understand it in its wider context. Individual skills and capabilities matter, but so do our experiences, the support systems we are part of and the resources available to us. It’s time to build a richer more nuanced understanding of resilience that recognises a child’s strength and ability to thrive can come from individual skills but also from environments that facilitate, protect and promote children’s safety and wellbeing. When we understand resilience in this way responsibility for tackling the mental health crisis amongst girls and young women becomes everyone’s business. In particular this approach demands proper investment in mental health services which are gender informed and recognise the impact of trauma and abuse experienced by girls.

Agenda’s Women in Mind campaign is calling for girls to be able to access the help they need, when they need it. It is vital that we see investment in mental health support across the board to make sure this happens – Given that three quarters of mental health problems are established before the age of 24, with young women aged 16-24 the highest risk group, we have a responsibility to get this right if we are to avoid storing up problems for the future.

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