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Girls Inc. of Alameda County Responds to Alarming Results of the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey

–Teen girls are experiencing record high levels of violence, sadness, and suicide risk — “Girls Inc. of Alameda County is the ‘medicine’”–

Oakland, California – This February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released their Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), with results indicating a dire situation for American teens, particularly for teen girls, gender-expansive and LGBTQ+ youth. The analysis includes 2021 data trends in the health behaviors and experiences of U.S. high school students and revealed that youth mental health is continuing to decline, with significant increases in widespread reports of harmful experiences among teen girls, including:

• Nearly 1 in 3 (30%) seriously considered attempting suicide—up nearly 60% from a decade ago.
• 1 in 5 (18%) experienced sexual violence in the past year—up 20% since 2017, when CDC started monitoring this measure.
• More than 1 in 10 (14%) had ever been forced to have sex—up 27% since 2019 and the first increase since CDC began monitoring this measure.
• Almost 3 in 5 teenage girls reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row in the past year.

“Though these trends have been exacerbated by the Pandemic, they are not new and have been steadily worsening since 2011,” comments Girls Inc. of Alameda County CEO, Julayne Virgil. “In addition, they disproportionately impact the population we serve—youth of color and youth from historically under resourced communities—and have thus been integral to our programming for decades.”

On March 15th, Girls Inc. of Alameda County hosted a panel to engage board members, investors and concerned community members in an informational discussion about the status of teen girls in Alameda County and the current crisis in American girlhood—to both impart the severity of the situation but also the assurance that solutions to this crisis are inherent in the work that we do.

Panel members included Dr. Javay Ross*, M.D. UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, Medical Director, Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center, our own Courtney Clendinen Johnson, Chief Program Officer, and CEO Julayne Virgil.

Dr. Ross began with an explanation about how this crisis is manifesting in her work here in Oakland. “As a pediatrician serving children and families across Oakland, and also in my role as Medical Director at Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center, I am seeing firsthand what the mental health crisis for our teen girls looks like right now—more gunshot wounds, more reports of sexual violence, isolation, hopelessness. Our girls are suffering in a way that I have not seen before, thus far in my career.”

She has also observed, however, that when they feel safe, valued and prepared to face challenges, youth can show incredible resilience. “Making sure they have a caring adult in their lives, providing a safe space – can make a huge difference,” Dr. Ross explained. “Engaging them with activities that promote their self-confidence and tooling them with the skills needed to navigate the challenges that life will undoubtedly bring, truly allows for them to reach for their dreams.”

Girls Inc. of Alameda County programming focuses on the whole girl, equipping them with the knowledge, skills and support required to help navigate the impact of violence and other trauma and prioritize mental health. Aside from academic success and college/post-secondary preparedness, middle school and high school curricula include critical education around social-emotional learning, healthy relationships, sexual and reproductive health, media literacy, body image, self-advocacy, and emphasis on connectedness to peers and staff.

Our programming works at every stage to encourage self-worth, self-confidence and positive self-image, a large part of which includes dismantling the myths and negative messages in today’s society.

“Youth are constantly being shown different and new ways to be self-critical, especially about their bodies,” Courtney explained. “In programming, we provide intentional teaching spaces where they can share the effects of social media on themselves and their friends. They learn how to connect their own experiences with the larger picture – allowing them to see the insidious ways that social media, influencers, and the larger media landscape attempt to shape how we see our bodies and our place in the world.”

In our Knowledge & Practice of Healthy Behaviors curriculum, 90% of participants indicated that, because of Girls Inc. of Alameda County, they better understand how body image affects girls’ feelings about themselves; 86% agreed that they learned the difference between negative and positive body image.

We also work to support teen’s understanding of true sexual consent and healthy relationships and we implement quality health education that is medically accurate and age appropriate. Ninety seven percent of girls who participated in our Healthy Relationships & Safe Dating curriculum reported that they learned that both people in a dating relationship should have equal power and 93% reported learning that people who experience emotional, sexual, and physical dating abuse should get help.

Increasing teens’ engagement with social-emotional learning– developing their self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills—is another way our programming helps teens cope with challenges and prepare for success. Of the participants in our Health and Advocacy Programs—Advocating Change Together (ACT), Healthy Evolving Relationships (HER), and Helping Everyone Achieve Success Together (HEART)—100% of 9-12th graders understand their feelings and know how their feelings affect others (79% answered most or all of the time). One hundred percent also reported knowing skills and tools to be able to manage themselves in constructive ways when they are stressed or upset (86% answered most or all of the time).

Establishing community and sisterhood so that teens know the people around them care about them, their well-being, and their success is another key element of our programming. Providing opportunities for teens to develop positive connections with trusted adults—mentors, program leaders, teachers, volunteers, staff—as well as with their peers, can help foster connectedness and belonging.

Ninety eight percent of 9-12th graders across our high school programs reported they felt supported and encouraged by their Girls Inc. peers (87% answered most or all of the time).

“All programs include time for young people to connect with each other and share vulnerabilities, shattering the myth that many of them hold that they are isolated in their feelings of sadness and isolation,” shared Courtney. “By coming together as a community, we can build their resilience and help youth dismantle the idea that they are alone and the only ones who have ever felt the way they do.”

Among our Health and Advocacy programs (ACT, HEART, HER) participants, 93% of 9th – 12th graders recognize that they are resilient (64% answered most or all of the time).

“What Girls Inc. of Alameda County is doing is the medicine. There is no prescription I can write or pill that they can take that can replicate or outweigh the impact that positive programming can have on the mental and physical health of our youth,” Dr. Javay concluded.

The data generated from the CDC’s Youth Risk Survey underscores the genuine urgency of the work we do every day to support, uplift and inspire girls and youth of color. We are well positioned as an organization to continue to respond productively and positively to this need, but we cannot do it alone. After the survey was released, Girls Inc. of Alameda County staff asked teens to use one word to describe how the CDC report made them feel. Responses included, “scared”, “angry”, “frustrated”, “not surprised”, “feeling the same,” and “tired.” They also shared that often they didn’t feel taken seriously, believed, or listened to by adults in their lives. An important first step that adults can take is to truly listen when our youth are sharing their experiences.

Invest in the programs, resources and services that can help our youth flourish. Invest in Girls Inc. of Alameda County.

*Dr, Javay Ross M.D., UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Primary Care & Adolescent Health, Associate Program Director, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland Pediatric Residency Program, and Medical Director, Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center.

Related Media Coverage
Teen girls ‘engulfed’ in violence and trauma, CDC finds – The Washington Post
Teen girls report record levels of violence, sadness and suicide risk, CDC survey finds – USA Today
Teen Girls Report Record Levels of Sadness, C.D.C. Finds – The New York Times

Community Resources:
Girls Inc. Network-Wide Policy & Advocacy Platform
Helping Youth Respond To Trauma & Toxic Stress
How Parents and Teachers Can Support Young People During the COVID19 Mental Health Crisis
How can you help prevent sexual harassment?
Tips to support girls’ rights through talking and listening
Tips for answering your child’s questions about sexuality
Tips for talking to teens about healthy relationships
Signs of relationship violence for parents