Content warning: this article mentions suicidal ideation and self-harm.

Rites for Girls is a preventative charity aiming to boost young girls’ self-esteem, communication, inform them about puberty in a safe, accepting and non-judgemental space, help with the understanding and acceptance of bereavement, divorce and also to tackle and discuss issues such as bullying, social media and body image with a group of girls their own age and facilitators who have gone through rigorous training and supervision.

Girls’ Net is an online course over six weeks of 1 ¼ hour weekly sessions for ten same-age girls. Girls’ Net is based on the idea of ‘the power of the group’ and Rites for Girls believes that giving girls a community to gain support, share experiences, learn healthy coping strategies and find their inherent resilience together is the answer.

Since the charity Agenda published their report earlier this year, 'Voices From Lockdown, a Way Forward For Women and Girls', it has been clear that the pandemic has uniquely impacted women and girls, especially young girls in a way it hasn't impacted other demographics. 

In the report, Agenda stated findings that, "Three quarters (76%) of organisations reported demand for their services had increased from the first lockdown" and that, "Over the course of one year, 100% of organisations reported the complexity of women and girls’ needs has increased".

This pointed to a clear need for mental health care, be it from the NHS, private, third sector or charitable organisations to respond to this unique crisis.

We spoke to Kim McCabe from Rites for Girls to tell us more about Girls’ Net, why they developed it and their perspective on the mental health crisis facing young girls in the past year.

Why did you develop Girls’ Net originally? And why online?

“Girls’ Net has been developed in response to the dramatic rise in girls’ mental distress over the pandemic. We have been able to continue our girls’ support groups in person through lockdown, adapting them to work socially distanced, and sadly we’ve witnessed a dramatic rise in anxiety, depression, obsessive behaviours, self-harm, and suicidal ideation - and all of this at a younger and younger age then we’ve seen before.”

“Girls’ Net was created an accessible source of support and guidance in times of challenge (so not just confined to covid-related stresses). We provide fun, guidance and a feeling of not being alone over a six week course, leaving girls with practical tools and a digital notebook to remind them. Girls’ Net can be offered face-to-face but we’re mostly choosing to offer it online, giving girls easy access in the comfort and privacy of their home.”

What do you hope Girls’ Net can provide girls specifically as it relates to the unique impact the pandemic has had on their mental health?

“Girls’ Net is designed to give girls immediate tools for managing their mental well-being, resourcing them to manage change and build resilience in challenging times of uncertainty. Each week a new topic is covered encouraging girls to know their inner strength, understand the signs of stress and how to manage them, support each other and identify who they can ask for help. Talking with the other girls, they realise they are not alone and that feeling extra anxious, angry or obsessive is understandable given the strains of living through the pandemic and we share healthy ways to cope better.”

What is your perspective on what needs to be done to address and acknowledge how the adversity of the past year has in fact impacted young girls’ mental health more severely?

Names changed to protect anonymity

“Lucy can no longer come to her Girls Journeying Together group as she feels too anxious to leave the house. Jane’s mother phones us to say she’s just discovered that her daughter has been secretly cutting herself; Jane is ten. Ella used to be a star student but she hated learning at home and has lost all motivation at school. In the past year, Sarah’s parents have split up, her Grandma died but there was no real funeral and she’s not seen her beloved auntie in months; Sarah sits in her room on her phone all day. Suzie and Sammy are both on the waiting list for CAMHS but they’ve not heard anything in months. Milly has been admitted to an eating disorders clinic as an inpatient. These girls are all preteens or in their very early teens and while we’ve always seen these problems it’s becoming alarmingly common and in ever younger girls.”

“These girls are our future, they will become our elders, many will be the mothers of the next generation and leaders in their field. Too many are anxious, hate themselves, hurt themselves and this is damaging, not just now but also harms their future. Every adult has a part to play in restoring the well-being of our young. Children's needs must be prioritised (not sacrificed as they have been). Schools can focus on restoring mental well-being ahead of academic concerns which are more easily caught up on. Parents need support, which we’ve been providing online in our 3-week Parenting Through Difficult Times. Children need a broad spectrum of support, including creative arts, sport, small groups, online activities, individual counselling, and above all fun.”

You can find out more about Rites for Girls here and their six week online course Girls’ Net here.

If the issues discussed in this article are relevant to you or someone you know, you can access support from Samaritans here, or call their helpline on 116 123 24/7.