The STEER Education report, which analysed data from 15,000 secondary school students across the UK has revealed that the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have had a devastating impact on the mental health of young girls.

The analysis as found that girls aged as young as 11 are now 30% more likely to suffer from poor mental health than boys of the same age. Similarly, by the time young girls reach the age of 18, they are more than twice as likely to be experiencing some form of poor mental health than boys of the same age.

Most worryingly, the report found that girls are going to great lengths to conceal signs of mental distress

The data analysis found that the likelihood of girls hiding poor mental health or distress, has risen from 60% to 80% since the start of the pandemic. The report also cites ‘unhealthy perfectionism’ and ‘extreme self-control’ as having increased by a staggering 60% (from 20% to 80%).

However, more generally across boys and girls in school, the pandemic seems to have impacted their ability to trust others (40% less trusting), as well as being less likely to take risks (25% less) and feeling unable to regulate and respond in a ‘measured’ way to life’s ‘everyday challenges’ (again, 25% less).

NHS struggling to meet demand for mental health support

The NHS recorded nearly 630,000 children in England having attempted to access help for their mental health between October 2020, and September 2021. The NHS have also stated that the number of children aged five to 16 who were identified as having a possible mental health disorder had risen from one in nine in 2017, to one in six in 2020, a huge increase.

In collaboration with Minds Ahead, STEER Education found in their report something they coined, ‘The hidden middle’, a group of children and young people in schools who are not being identified as vulnerable, both organisations cite inadequate detection methods and a lack of training as possible causes of this.

STEER Education’s Senior Education Consultant, and former headteacher, Simon Antwis has said: “Schools are understandably deeply worried by the growing numbers of students with poor mental health. This report on the current state of young people’s mental health shows that we should be particularly alarmed by the state of girls’ mental health in secondary schools – it is at a precipice and the pandemic has exacerbated a worrying trend we have seen now for many years.”

He continued, “The growing gulf between boys’ and girls’ mental health looks to be one of the long-lasting effects of the pandemic, with recovery from school closures taking a long time…But perhaps particularly concerning is the number of girls who are now keeping their worries and fears to themselves, making it much more difficult for their teachers to identify them as vulnerable and in need of support.”

Speaking to this ‘hidden middle’ Simon Antwis pointed out that methods that depend on self-referrals such as online surveys and chat support hubs unfortunately miss out a whole group of students who, as the report revealed, are hiding their mental distress.

He said, “They fail to spot the ‘hidden middle’ – those who may be showing early signs of self-harm, bullying, anxiety and unhealthy self-control.”

To identify and support these students, as Simon pointed out, requires training to spot those early signs of mental distress that often progress into something more severe.

Finding ways to identify those most in need

STEER Education have created an online assessment tool called STEER Tracking. The aim of the tool is to specifically identify those who seem to be coping on the surface, but who are actually slipping through the cracks and struggling, only because their distress is manifesting in a less obvious way.

The tool is now used by over 250 schools, including Unity City Academy in Middlesborough, which has the fourth highest proportion of students on free school meals in the country. Andrew Rodgers, the school principal has said:

“The tool has been hugely helpful in identifying students who seem to be coping well on the surface, but are actually struggling…It enables us to focus our resources on those students who are most in need.”

The analysis from this report is another in a long list, evidencing the fact that the pandemic, the subsequent lockdowns and restrictions, across all ages, has severely impacted women and girls. From the higher instances of domestic abuse, unequal pressure to care and provide education for children whilst maintaining the home, to young girls being impacted by school closures and social media pressure: the knock to the mental health of thousands of girls and women is staggering and inarguable.

Now, with another stark example of this, we must question whether general, non-gender specific approaches to mental health interventions and support are enough, or whether girls and women need tailored care, and care that is informed by those who understand and empathise.