Mental Health and Gender Inequality: The Dual Crisis Affecting the World’s Girls and Women

The UN Foundation's Girls & Women Strategy team hosts an event on mental health at the Foundation's Nest Hub on the sidelines of the Women Deliver conference in Kigali, Rwanda in July 2023. The Hub was designed to be a safe, inclusive, beautiful, and comfortable space in order to support the mental and emotional well-being of feminist activists attending the conference. Photo: UN Foundation

There’s a global mental health crisis crying out for action, and it’s taking the biggest toll on girls and women, whose rights are rolling back around the world. Three gender equality experts discuss girls’ and women’s mental and emotional well-being.

“Mental health has become a silent pandemic in the lives of many of our young women,” Amina J. Mohammed said at the Generation Equality Midpoint Moment during diplomacy’s biggest moment, the 78th Session of the UN General Assembly. Shining a light on the severity of the crisis, the Deputy Secretary-General was adamant that gender equality will remain out of reach — as will, by extension, all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals — until we address this issue head-on.

As conversations around mental health expand, Sia Nowrojee, Stephanie Oula, and Mary Jerome on the UN Foundation’s Girls and Women Strategy team are looking at this crisis through a gender equality lens. They’re seeing firsthand how feminist organizations and movements as well as private sector companies are paying greater attention. Now more than ever, integrating healing justice and centering mental health in their work is urgent to ensure that no girl or woman has to suffer in silence.

The Connection Between Mental Health and Gender Equality

Megan: How do girls’ and women’s experiences with mental health differ from those of boys and men? What’s the connection between mental health and gender equality?

Sia: You know, Megan, mental health is a global crisis across genders. Boys and men are deeply affected by this crisis as well. But the ways that it is experienced by girls and women are shaped by the ways in which gender norms differ — how we, as women, experience the world and the inherent stresses and inequalities that come with being a girl or a woman in the world today.

Stephanie: New research from our partners at Kate Spade New York and Prospira Global found that 90% of those surveyed agreed: Women experience increasing stressors simply by being a woman.

Mary: Of all the mental health challenges that are specific to girls and women, of which there are many, the one that I’m thinking about most acutely is gender-based violence.

Sia: Definitely. When 1 in 3 women experience gender-based violence, it’s clear: Being a woman is risky.

Stephanie: Sadly, I think it’s become so normalized in our societies that as girls and women, we have to constantly think about our safety, and about risk and danger. We’re constantly calculating about whether it’s safe to walk home from school, safe to be out socializing, how to stay safe at work, and for so many women and girls, whether it is safe to be at home. It takes a big toll when you realize how much head space that takes up, to regularly monitor and think about potential violence and how to survive it.

Sia: And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as girls and women around the world lose control over what happens to our bodies, including where we can even be in our bodies, we’re seeing this crisis intensify.

For example, mental health practitioners in Afghanistan have been reporting higher rates of suicide among girls and women than boys and men for the first time. At the same time, we’re seeing new laws that are shrinking the worlds of Afghan girls and women; they cannot travel without a male escort and have little or no access to spaces where they can learn, work, and come together in community. And now, a new survey from the UN confirms that an overwhelming majority — nearly 70% of Afghan women — are reporting growing feelings of anxiety, isolation, and depression. Again, it’s not a coincidence.

The Shocking Reality of the Mental Health Crisis

That’s such a distressing example. What has been the most shocking statistic when it comes to your work on mental health in the gender space?

Mary: A recent report from the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] stopped me in my tracks. It found that nearly 60% of teen girls in the U.S. felt persistently sad or hopeless — double that of teen boys. And about 1 in 3 teenage girls seriously considered suicide. That’s heartbreaking.

"In the United States, about 1 in 3 teenage girls seriously considered suicide."

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2023)

Sia: It’s the “persistent sadness and hopelessness” that drove home the extent of this crisis for me. It’s just such a powerful description: 60% of adolescent girls are feeling sad and hopeless. How can we ignore that?

Stephanie: I think we have to acknowledge that this generation of girls is growing up in an increasingly digital world; there are clear linkages between social media use and adolescent mental health. Research has shown a direct correlation between rising social media use and mental health impacts among teen girls in the U.S. in particular. We need to tackle violence and bullying against girls in the digital world just as much as in the real one.

"We need to tackle violence and bullying against girls in the digital world just as much as in the real one. "

Stephanie Oula

UN Foundation

Mary: It’s been great to see growing recognition in the private sector about both the influence they have as advertisers and their responsibility to stop perpetuating stereotypes and biases that make mental health challenges worse — especially among girls and women.

Pinterest is a great example. As a company, they’ve banned weight loss ads and they’ve pioneered an inclusive product so that when you use the platform, you’re more likely to see images that are truly representative of our population — without any assumption about the searcher’s skin tone, body size, hair color, or hair texture. We need more companies to follow their lead.

Feminist activists participate in a panel discussion on mental health and healing justice, hosted at UN Foundation's Nest Hub in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: UN Foundation

Helping the Helpers: Providing Safe Spaces for Girls, Women, and Advocates

Clearly, more needs to be done to fully meet the mental health needs of girls and women. With so many gaps in the global mental health crisis response, where are you seeing action being taken?

Stephanie: Our work with youth activists has been incredibly eye-opening. When we held our first feminist trust-building workshop last year, it really emphasized that many advocates and allies doing this work are doing it because they have lived experiences with the consequences of gender inequality — with the very traumas that we’re working to address. A trauma-informed lens into our work on gender equality is essential.

The concept of “healing justice” has really been championed by feminist and social justice movements; Urgent Action Fund-Africa is one of the pioneers of this work, which is starting to mainstream in funding spaces. The Urgent Action Funds, which include sister funds working in all regions, have a fantastic guide for prospective funders about centering care in social movements — and they’re very clear that support for this work has to go beyond project support to include people support.

Essentially, you can’t fund social justice movements without also thinking about the care of the people leading or facilitating those movements. It’s more than self-care, it’s about collective care.

Mary: That reminds me of the work the Saks Fifth Avenue Foundation has been doing to care for their local community. They have a local grant program that supports the grassroots and community-based nonprofits providing care and resources to those with unique — and especially intersectional — mental health needs, mainly young people, women, and the LGBTQ community.

You work closely with the private sector. Why do you think the private sector is so vital to addressing this mental health crisis for girls and women?

Mary: As employers, they can create safe and inclusive workplaces that support women through any number of life changes or mental health challenges, from parental leave policies that give women the time and space they need to adjust to becoming mothers, and navigating the host of mental health challenges that can come with that transition, to being a safe space for women experiencing gender-based violence in their lives outside of work.

In fact, one of our partners, Liberty Latin America, turned their experience seeing domestic violence rise among employees during the pandemic into action by funding community-based efforts to counter gender-based violence. And one of the ways they did that was through the WithHer Fund, an initiative of ours that directs funds to grassroots, women-led organizations taking on violence in their communities.

Sia: We’re also working to incorporate these lessons into our own work on the Foundation’s Girls & Women team. We’re now offering professional counseling as a part of our trust-building workshops. We are also aware that advocates and activists who work on gender equality are expected to keep going despite being surrounded by stressors. That’s why at Women Deliver in Kigali we hosted a dedicated space open to everyone who needed a respite from the conference.

It was really important for us to create a safe, inclusive, beautiful, and comfortable space; we even partnered with our colleagues from Peace on Purpose to lead mindfulness sessions. We were struck by how many times we heard from the feminists gathered there that they never have a place to simply relax, recharge, and connect.

Stephanie: We can’t sustain our movements without joy, without connection to each other.

Coming Together for Girls and Women

What’s your message to partners across sectors who want to make a difference in the global movement for gender equality?

Sia: There is enough evidence that gender inequality and the mental health crisis are integrally linked: being a girl or woman puts you at risk of mental health issues, and being a gender equality advocate or activist puts you at risk of mental health issues. We need to recognize these links, and our work and ways of working should reflect that.

"Everyone is in a position to do something about the mental health crisis affecting girls and women"

Stephanie Oula

UN Foundation

Stephanie: That this doesn’t have to be intimidating! Everyone is in a position to do something about the mental health crisis affecting girls and women — regardless of funding or capacity.

It’s about creating the right workplaces and the right teams to ensure supportive spaces. It’s about intentionally checking in on your loved ones, colleagues, and friends. It’s about taking care of your own mental health and seeing it in the context of wider issues.

It is absolutely a journey, and no one has to get it perfectly right on the first try. But everyone reading this blog — no matter what sector they work in or where they are on their own mental health journeys — can do something to help tackle this crisis.