15 Ways to Improve Young Women's Mental Health & Boost Self-esteem

In schools and colleges up and down the country our young women are feeling unattractive, unloved, unwanted and inadequate.  They are part of a growing mental health epidemic that will continue to grow unless we all do something for the young women around us, on our streets, in our families and in our communities.  But we can all help.  Here are 15 ways you can help improve young women's mental health and boost their self-esteem.

Mental illness among women is on the rise, with one in five experiencing a common mental disorder, such as anxiety or depression, compared with one in eight men.  Women are excelling in many fields, achieving more and more equality, and yet the number of women suffering from anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm continues to increase.

Starting at earlier and earlier ages, some as young as 10, girls are feeling the pressures of the appearance norms imposed by social media, advertising and popular culture.  Despite their achievements at school, college, university, and in non-academic life, young women are feeling increasingly inadequate.  With seemingly endless competition over looks, clothes, possessions and other irrelevancies, women are becoming more isolated than ever before.

Social media, advertising, traditional media and TV all conspire to tell women that there is value in their appearance, in the extraordinary concept of 'having it all', and that fierce competition and being seen to 'better' (in looks, wealth, fame) than other people brings validation and success.

How can we encourage young women to feel strong in heart, body and soul?  How can we encourage them to value themselves no matter what others think of them, to believe in themselves in all aspects of life?  To realise that happiness doesn't lie in a bottle, a credit card, a nail bar or a dating app?

In some desperate bid to get ahead of the game, girls are encouraged to have the right hair cut/shoes/phone from a very early age.  Coupled with the fear of missing out that social media creates, girls are driven to strive for some kind of super status.  Many self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, and spend every waking moment obsessing about getting things 'right' and being 'perfect'.

Attributes such as optimism and positive self-esteem (not just the appearance of it) are left by the wayside as girls compete to be better than their peers in terms of appearance of sexuality.  Failure in terms of body shape or size, the appearance of hair and make up, or social popularity is feared more than anything else, and a source of scorn and ridicule from pre-secondary school age.

Too many of our young women feel that they are 'less than'.  They feel the need to analyse and criticise every photo of themselves, to hand out sexual imagery, and often acts, to every boy that asks, in the hope of validation.  This is not how a generation of women should be growing up.

So how can we encourage positive mental health, and self-acceptance, in our daughters, sisters and nieces - and also ourselves?

1. Encourage resilience

Help her to keep a mental - or physical - list of her achievements.  When things go wrong, encourage her to focus on what she can and has done, not what she can't.  Help her to start writing a journal, and to learn some stress management strategies.  Consider seeing a hypnotherapist who can teach some useful techniques.  A gratitude journal can be a useful addition which channels positive thoughts and outweighs negatives.

2. Have courage

Trying new things is an essential skill for adults.  Encourage her to go outside her comfort zone and discover new skills and interests, finding out more about herself and the world in the process.  Volunteering her time to a local charity could also be hugely beneficial, for example helping an older person in the community.

3. Stay mindful

Young children are naturally mindful, living and being in the moment, committing themselves completely to play and joy.  Encourage young women to stay mindful, focussing on the little things and the present moment rather than all the ephemera of modern life.  Learning meditation will also help, but a simple appreciation of the world around them is key.  Trees, bird song, sunlight, sock in the world.

4. Still the inner critic

Use only positive terms and phrases from birth helps a child's inner voice to be positive not critical.  Make any "You're so ...!" comments positive ones.  If the damage is already done, start now.  Commit to no more criticism, only celebration and encouragement.  Help her to turn external and internal negative self-talk into positives, reframe fails into ways to grow.  Talk in only positive terms about yourself too, especially about your appearance, body shape and achievements.

5. Value your self

Treat yourself with kindness and respect.  Celebrate your body, your appearance, your mind, your work, your achievements.  Encourage young women to do the same.  Encourage each other.

6. Use time wisely

As pressing as hours on Facebook or going out five nights a week may seem, encourage her to think about how she really wants to spend her time.  Reading, drawing, gardening and other creative endeavours which encourage stillness and self-absorption are crucial to wellbeing, and will bring greater rewards than mindless hours in front of the TV.

7. Walk

Walk with her in nature every day, or as often as you are able.  Encourage a mindful appreciation of the surroundings, and quiet contemplative thought and conversation.  Take the opportunity to laugh too, laughter has many beneficial effects on the body and mind.

8. Broaden horizons

Take her to a museum, the theatre or just a new town.  Encourage her to take up a class such as another language or a musical instrument, or to start yoga, Pilates or Tai Chi.  (Great ideas for birthday and Christmas presents!)

9. Eat well

Without any comment on her body size or shape, introduce new foods and encourage a healthy eating approach the whole family can adopt.  Treat your body well and embrace nutritious foods which will help with a natural glow, better skin and a healthier, leaner body.

10. Healthy life

Talk to her about healthy lifestyle choices and how a healthy body creates a healthy mind.  Encourage her to drink more water, to exercise well, to avoid tobacco and drugs, and to limit alcohol.  Ask her about the pressures around her, and how she can handle saying no when others mock her choices.

11. Sleep

Recognise that teenage body clocks are different to ours, but encourage her to develop healthy sleep habits.  Clean sleeping without electronic distractions and in a relaxing room is a key skill to learn and will serve her well in adulthood.  (And the odd nap never hurt anyone!)

12. Set goals

Help her to set goals well, whether they be academic, professional or personal.  Encourage her to aim high.  Show her how to make goals SMART and how to break them down into baby steps to make them achievable, demonstrate how to not over-schedule but to be ambitious.  Having a conquerable future, with achievable goals, will help her overcome current adversity.

13. Surround her with love

People with a strong family or social support network are generally healthier than those without, so encourage everyone around her to be healthful and encouraging too.  Enlist aunts, grandparents and family friends to help support her.

14. Get a pet

If she doesn't already have a furry friend to pour her heart out to, get her one.  Make sure she understands the responsibilities involved, but also the unconditional love she will get back.  Myriad studies show the benefits of pet ownership to body and soul.

15. Ask for help

Talk to her about overwhelming feelings, and how to recognise when there is a problem.  Show her where and how to ask for help.  Depression, mental illness, addiction, low self-esteem, all are treatable and recovery and a better future is possible.  Encourage her to see that asking for help is a sign of strength, not of weakness.

I had this post half-written when I heard the tragic news of designer Kate Spade's apparent suicide earlier this week.  As the news unfolded, it seemed she had been suffering from mental health issues for several years and did not want to damage her brand's reputation with the stigma of mental illness.  No-one should feel this way.  We all need to work together to improve women's mental health and wellbeing.  Let's start with all the girls we know.

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