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Youth survey reveals mental health differences between girls, boys

Janesville Gazette - 11/11/2019

Nov. 11--JANESVILLE -- Every other year, students in Rock County's middle and high schools take the Youth Risk Survey.

Developed for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the survey covers everything from drug and alcohol use to sexting, texting and screen use.

The results are reported across all students and by gender.

Of the 50 questions asked of high school students, only four showed more than 15% difference between genders.

Of the 40 questions asked of middle-schoolers, only three resulted in more than a 15% difference between genders.

For all ages, the greatest differences between genders were found in responses about anxiety, depression and bullying, with girls reporting significantly higher incidences of all three.

Local advocates say there is a reason for those differences, and they're working to reduce the cultural biases and violence against girls that drive those numbers. At the same time, they recognize that such surveys don't always reflect the reality of boys' lives.

The numbers

More than 5,000 students in 14 Rock County high schools took the survey. These subjects showed the greatest difference in responses by gender:

* Anxiety: 64% of girls and 37% of boys reported problems with anxiety.

* Sexual or dating violence: 37% of girls and 14% of boys reported being victims of rape, sexual assault or intimate partner violence.

* Bullying: 52% of girls and 31% of boys agreed or strongly agreed that bullying is a problem.

* Depression: 41% of girls and 23% of boys reported experiencing "prolonged, disruptive sadness."

The survey also was taken by more than 3,000 students in 14 Rock County middle schools. Subjects that showed the greatest difference in responses by gender included:

* Anxiety: 64% of girls and 44% of boys reported "significant anxiety."

* Fights at school: 30% of boys and 11% of girls reported they had been in a physical fight in the last 12 months.

* Depression: 41% of girls and 23% of boys reported experiencing "prolonged, disruptive sadness."

What's going on

Why are these differences so stark between boys and girls?

Despite all the changes in gender roles in the last 50 years, boys and girls are inundated by old-fashioned messages about how to behave.

It's not just Rock County students who give those responses. It's a national issue, said Shari Faber, project coordinator for Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change, an organization committed to preventing substance abuse and promoting mental wellness.

"I do think some of it is still those cultural biases are still out there," she said. "Boys are supposed to 'be a man' and 'suck it up.' I think that's still prevalent in our society."

Girls continue to struggle with social pressures over appearance, weight, who to be friends with and behavior, she said.

In addition, the teen and tween years are a time of dramatic change.

"They're physically changing. They're biologically changing. Their hormones are going crazy. They have changes in their social lives. They have changes in their brain development," Faber said. "So there's a lot going on that adolescents are dealing with on a daily basis. It's a very challenging time in their lives."

However, that's true for boys as well as girls, so why do girls report higher rates of anxiety and depression?

Unfortunately, girls face a greater risk for trauma than boys do, Faber said.

By trauma, she means sexual assault or abuse, physical and emotional abuse or neglect, separation from a parent or caregiver, having a parent with a mental illness or having a parent in jail.

When girls and women experience trauma, they are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, Faber said.

"It's kind of a double-whammy," she said. "Not only are girls more at risk for trauma, but it's also more likely that the trauma will follow them into adulthood."

Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change recently received a grant to help reduce the impact of such trauma on all children.

Handle With Care is a program that allows police officers to contact schools when a child has experienced a difficult situation, such as witnessing the arrest of a parent.

Another program helps drug-endangered children. When police are going to make a drug bust in a home where children are present, they make sure county social services workers are on hand immediately.

"Otherwise, it can take hours for someone to get there," Faber said.

Children still will suffer, but the long-term impact of that suffering can be reduced, she said.

Asking the right questions

Therapist Kristen Hopkins works with adolescents at Associates in Psychotherapy in Janesville.

The difference in survey responses about self-reported anxiety and depression might come down to which questions were asked.

"I wonder if they assessed for feelings or anger or rage," Hopkins said. "Because what you will see is that boys will absolutely report anger as their kind of vehicle for expression of anxiety and depression."

Girls are more likely to use more emotional language, while boys are more likely to label feelings using masculine or male-accepted terms, she said.

Differences in emotional responses certainly show up in the survey. At the middle school level, 30% of boys report being in a physical fight in the last 12 months. That's 19 percentage points higher than girls.

Boys also are more likely to disappear into a video game or "anything that is an exit door" from what is going on in their lives, Hopkins said.

Boys might go out for a night of underage drinking, but those "exit doors" can also be good things, such as going hunting with their dad, she said.

"Girls are more likely to sit with their feelings," Hopkins said. "They're given permission to do that when they're very young. They're asked, 'How do you feel about that?'"

What kinds of questions gauge the mental wellness of boys?

"That's probably a question for a researcher," Hopkins said with a laugh. "But I would ask young men questions about their actions before I asked them about their feelings. I'd ask them about school attendance. I'd ask them about the amount of time they spend alone."

She acknowledged that those questions might seem stereotypical, and she stressed that many young men she sees can articulate their feelings. But there are others who tell her, "I snapped again. I punched a hole in the wall, and I don't even know why."

The bottom line: Boys need to be given ways to talk about their feelings.

"Until we've given our young men the language and skills to identify and discuss their emotions, we can't expect them to process them," Hopkins said. "They're just not there yet."

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