Suicide is a significant and growing global health problem which has consistently ranked among the leading causes of death for older adolescent girls and boys globally and depressive disorders, anxiety, behavioral problems, and self-harm are among the greatest contributors to the burden of disease for youth (WHO, 2017).
Mental health can impede all aspects of health, including overall well-being and development, leaving adolescents feeling socially isolated, stigmatized and unable to optimize their social, vocational and interpersonal contributions to society. Poor mental health in adolescence is strongly associated with higher rates of substance use, early pregnancy, school dropout, delinquent behaviors and suicide. Furthermore, it can contribute to more serious mental disorders and overall poor health later in life (WHO, 2015).
Yet most political attention and development programming to date has failed to understand and address either the drivers of such poor mental health outcomes among this age cohort, or the ways in which to respond to adolescents’ mental health needs.
In addition, very little is known about the gendered dimensions of this global challenge. Understanding adolescent girls’ and boys’ unique and common vulnerabilities to mental health risks, including the impacts of harmful gender norms and the factors that can protect and enhance their mental health and wellbeing, are crucial when considering appropriate policies and interventions.
A small body of emerging evidence from some low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) – as well as knowledge from neuroscience and social science – suggests that the experience of pervasive gender-based discrimination is likely a significant contributor to poor mental health, depression and suicidality among adolescents (Patel, 2013).
ICRW’s extensive experience working to address gender inequality in LMICs, led us to hypothesize that rigid social norms and gender-based discrimination limit the perceived control both girls and boys have over their own lives and futures, and that this perceived lack of control can have deleterious effects on their mental health and overall well-being. Evidence that shows how harmful gender norms and gender-based discrimination affect the mental health of girls and boys can inform policies and programs that seek to improve their overall well-being, and more rigorous evidence of this kind is greatly needed. Indeed, understanding these connections is a critical first step toward designing and testing interventions that can redress harmful gender norms and their impacts, and enable young people to gain greater control over their futures.
Globally, approximately 30 percent of adolescent girls aged
Building on our longstanding global experience in research, capacity strengthening, gender-transformative programing, and high-impact policy engagement, ICRW has been among the first in the field to galvanize attention on advancing more concrete research and action in the area of gender and adolescent mental health. ICRW has worked with experts from bilateral and multilateral agencies, donor institutions, academia, civil society and program implementing organizations to gain a common understanding of the relationship between gender and mental health in adolescence and to discuss priorities for future research to improve adolescent mental health through a focus on gender and gender norms.
Across sectors and technical areas, the central element of ICRW’s institutional approach is to identify the unique needs of women and men, bring into sharper focus the issues and constraints they face, and design gender-responsive policies and programs in a wide range of technical areas. ICRW will continue to play a leadership role in advancing the evidence base, informing the design and implementation of programs and policies, and catalyzing global action to address gender and adolescent mental health.
The inclusion of mental health and substance abuse in the Sustainable Development Goals is an opportunity to invest in the prevention and treatment of mental health through the strengthening of health systems, prioritizing mental health on the global healthcare agenda, improving organization of and integrating mental health services into programming, addressing the gendered drivers of mental health and developing policies to inform the design and implementation of gender-responsive interventions in LMICs. Our hope is that improved understanding of the distinct mental health challenges that adolescent girls and boys face, and particularly of how these challenges are influenced by gender norms and inequities, can help spur future research and action.