The pandemic was hard on youth mental health. In NH, it was especially bad for girls.
Like so many others of its kind, the Circle Program — a summer camp and mentorship program for girls in the greater Concord and Lakes Region area — was closed in 2020.
When it partially reopened the following summer, Executive Director Beth Dever noticed a lot of the girls were struggling.
“They were experiencing a lot more mental health issues,” she said, including “a lot of sadness and depression.”
Last summer, Dever said eight of the camp’s 9- to 11-year-olds had to be brought to the emergency department because of mental health crises, including thoughts of suicide. Nothing close to that has happened before in the program’s 30-year history, she said.
“I feel that they were absolutely isolated,” she said of the effects of the pandemic on the girls in her program. “I feel that also social media and the way individuals communicate, there's a lot of pressure on our girls to look and feel and talk in a certain way.”
Newly released data underscore the extent of the mental health crisis facing young people in New Hampshire — and girls in particular — as the pandemic has exacerbated mental health struggles among children and teens across the country.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that teenage girls across the U.S. are experiencing “record high levels of violence, sadness and suicide risk.”
“There are risk factors that lead to poor mental health, and those risk factors are all experienced at higher rates for girls than boys,” said Devan Quinn, policy director for the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation, which also produced a recent report on girls’ mental health.
Girls in New Hampshire already experienced depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation at higher rates than boys before the pandemic, according to the report. But Quinn said risk factors like electronic bullying, sexual violence and negative body image likely worsened during the pandemic.
“They were on their computers and phones much more often, and they were isolated more,” she said.
Recently released data from New Hampshire’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, gathered in fall 2021, found that 58% of high school girls reported feeling sad or hopeless for prolonged periods in the previous year — up from 44% in 2019, and nearly twice the rate reported by boys.
Teen girls also considered and attempted suicide at roughly twice the rate of boys, according to the survey. Almost one third of girls reported they had seriously considered suicide, compared to 23% two years earlier.
LGBTQ+ youth were especially likely to experience poor mental health, according to the survey. More than 70% of teens who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual reported symptoms of depression.
As more young people struggled with mental health, the number who were waiting for inpatient psychiatric treatment shot up during the pandemic — and an increasing share of them were girls, according to the report from the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation, which cites data from state health officials. In 2019, the waiting list was about evenly split between girls and boys. But in 2020, 2021 and the first nine months of 2022, girls made up 60% to 70% of those waiting for inpatient psychiatric care.
Susan Stearns, the executive director of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the recent reports should be a “clarion call” for more action on youth mental health and suicide prevention.
"The children of New Hampshire, and our nation, were experiencing a mental health crisis prior to the pandemic,” Stearns said in an email, adding that COVID “has only exacerbated that crisis.”
The Women’s Foundation report recommends increasing mental health services in New Hampshire schools and expanding inpatient treatment capacity to reduce wait times.
It also calls for more data collection on youth mental health outcomes by race and ethnicity, geographic area, Medicaid status, sexuality and gender identity. Quinn noted that Latina, multiracial and Black girls in New Hampshire were disproportionately likely to experience depression and thoughts of suicide.
“We want to be able to report as much data as possible so that clinical providers and our community providers can do their best work, knowing who it is they need to target for services,” Quinn said.
At the Circle Program, Dever said her team has been making several changes: requiring camp counselors to get mental health certifications, making parents know campers can keep seeing their therapists by telehealth through the summer and working with a local mental health center to have a social worker on site. This summer, Dever said the camp also plans to have a social worker there at night, when campers’ depression and anxiety tend to be worse.
According to Dever, many of the girls at Circle Program come from socially or economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and have experienced childhood trauma. Allowing them to “be able to express themselves safely, and feel like they're being heard and feeling like their voices have value — I think that's really important for us,” she said.
People experiencing a mental health crisis in New Hampshire can call or text 833-710-6477 for the state’s mobile crisis services or 988 for the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.