As many as one in three ACT girls aged 15 to 19 meet the criteria for serious mental illness.
Nearly half have thought about self-harm. Fewer than 10 per cent feel their health and wellbeing is balanced, and only 36.7 per cent feel positively about the future.
These are among the disturbing statistics that reveal all is not well behind closed doors in our homes, schools and universities.
In fact, girls and young women in the ACT have the worst mental health in the country according to two separate studies by the Australian National University (ANU) in 2018 and more recently, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).
New support service Fearless Women aims to address this epidemic by allowing those aged 12 to 25 to open up about their anxieties.
Fearless Women CEO Glenda Stevens said there was currently a noticeable gap in services.
“We’re the first organisation to look at that big group of girls in the middle – those girls who are just surviving and sliding,” she says.
Fearless Women started about a year ago on the back of private funding. Operations continue to ramp up after employed staff came on board in September and an in-school pilot program concluded late last year.
The issue is clear.
“The girls here have really high expectations of themselves,” Glenda says.
The ACT’s mantle as the nation’s most educated region has led many girls to believe that if they’re not aiming to forge a career as a high-level public servant with a master’s degree from ANU, they’re not aiming to achieve.
“For young girls who are creative or who just want to choose a different career path, they feel the pressure to not choose this but rather pursue the expectation.”
Canberra’s highly-transient population doesn’t help.
“Relationships with peers and adults are often broken at random points of the girl’s progression, when their best friend or closest family member suddenly moves interstate.”
Glenda reflects on her aunt offering a sounding board during difficult times growing up at home.
“A lot of girls in the ACT don’t have that ongoing relationship with extended family members, simply because they’re not nearby.”
She says the major hurdle is getting the girls to realise their problems are worth talking about.
“Even though it might be causing them considerable stress and anxiety, too many feel their problems aren’t big enough.
“The early intervention is what they’re missing out on. And this is what Fearless Women is trying to do – keep the girls heading in the right direction so they don’t slide into an area where they need intensive support.”
In many cases, she says girls are either turning to their friends or online for help. But friends are often ill-equipped to offer the right support and the internet can be a mixed bag of helpful and dangerous advice.
Glenda says there’s a resounding answer to what the girls crave.
“They want to be confident. They want to know who they are and their place in the world. They want to know their feelings are valid. And they want those things for the rest of their lives – they want to be resilient.”
She says her email inbox alone confirms there’s huge need and support for Fearless Women in the ACT.
“We’ve done a few interviews and focus groups with prospective mentors, and almost universally they have said `I know how much this would have helped me’.”
Glenda says more funding is required to get the organisation off the ground, something she hopes to secure through government grants and private donations via an online fundraiser hosted by Hands Across Canberra.
In mid-2022, the ‘Fearless Women in Schools’ program will include one-on-one mentoring to provide friendship, support and wisdom. By the end of the year, fully accredited counsellors will be available to offer professional guidance and resources to develop independence and resilience.
“It’s about helping to plant the seed of their development and instructing in how to make good decisions. You always have setbacks in life and this is about equipping girls and young women with what they need to work through them.”
Prospective mentors, mentees or volunteers can apply on the Fearless Women website.