Girls Are Under Threat — Why Are We Surprised?

Girl looking sad while holding her phone
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“U.S. Teen Girls Experiencing Increased Sadness and Violence.”

It should have been a front page headline and a lead story on the national news, but there was a devastating earthquake and Chinese spy balloon and yet another mass shooting, this time at a college on the eve of the fifth anniversary of a different mass shooting at a high school. So — once again — the shocking, heartbreaking plight of America’s girls was shifted to the back burner of news. How many girls might die because there was no space made for them to be seen?  

It’s not hyperbole to ask this question when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just released details of a new study February 13 that reveal almost 60 percent of girls report feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness, with 30 percent experiencing suicidal ideation. That’s double what boys are experiencing, representing a nearly 60% increase and the highest level reported over the past decade.

The 89 page “Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021” is full of disturbing details that indicate we are letting bad things happen to girls and doing little or nothing about it. More than 17,000 U.S. high school students were surveyed in class in the fall of 2021 for the study.

Sexual violence, suicidal thoughts, suicidal behavior and other mental health woes affect many teens regardless of race or ethnicity, but girls and LGBTQ youth are most impacted. 

Concomitant with the release of the CDC report was the story of Adriana Kuch. The 14-year-old student at New Jersey’s Central Regional High School was beaten and bullied by a group of girls. Kuch committed suicide two days after the beating was posted on social media. Four girls have been charged in connection with her death. One was charged with aggravated assault, another with harassment, and two others with conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer told NBC News Feb. 10. 

In a video of the beating posted online by Kuch’s attackers, the teen had a drink thrown at her, she was kicked and punched and dragged down the hallway. She was pushed into lockers, her hair was pulled and she was hit with a 20-ounce water bottle. Other students witnessed the beating and laughed rather than making any attempt to stop it. 

According to the teen’s father, Michael Kuch, Adriana received messages mocking her after the beating. She killed herself shortly after the last harassing message. “They used the video to continue to harass and intimidate her and make fun of her,” Michael Kuch told The New York Post.  

What happened to Adriana Kuch exemplifies the need to address the  issues raised in the CDC report — particularly those linking violence and suicidal ideation.

Key points of the CDC study are startling. The research found:

*Among girls, 30 percent said they seriously considered attempting suicide, double the rate among boys and up almost 60 percent from a decade ago.

*Almost 20 percent of girls reported experiencing rape or other sexual violence in the previous year, also an increase over previous years.

*Almost half of LGBTQ students said they had seriously considered a suicide attempt.

*More than a quarter of Native Americans and Alaska natives said they had seriously considered a suicide attempt — higher than other races and ethnicities.

*Recent poor mental health was reported by half of LGBTQ kids and almost one-third of American Indian and Alaska Native youth.

*42 per cent of all high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless at some point during 2021. That number represents a 50 percent increase over the last decade. 

Kathleen Ethier, director of CDC’s adolescent and school health division, said of the report’s details that over three decades of collecting such data “we’ve never seen this kind of devastating, consistent findings. There’s no question young people are telling us they are in crisis. The data really call on us to act.”

The CDC report is organized into five chapters: sexual behavior,

substance use, experiencing violence, mental health and suicidality, and

new and emerging national data. Among the most disturbing points was violence. 

The six violence-related variables included in the report are all linked to “poor health outcomes.” Three of these — being threatened or injured with a weapon at school, not going to school because of feeling unsafe at or on the way to or from school, and being bullied at school, “are indicators of disruption in the school setting that can also impact academic success.”

The study also states that “adolescents who are bullied, whether at school or electronically, are more likely to have multiple sexual partners, to have sex without a condom, to use substances, and to experience depression.” 

In addition, “Forced sex and sexual violence are directly related to HIV and STD risk, but also to the experience of trauma, which research has linked to substance use, mental health problems, and suicide risk.”

Concomitant with this is the fact that “females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault” and “82% of all victims of sexual abuse or assault under 18 are female.”

Adding to feelings of lack of safety for some girls is that Black and Latina girls are disproportionately disciplined in school settings. Black girls are six times more likely to be expelled, three times more likely to be suspended, and four times more likely to be arrested than white girls, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. 

The isolation caused by the pandemic is thought to have intensified the  mental health crisis for many teens. LGBTQ youth have long been at higher risk for depression and anxiety as well as suicidality, but the dramatic rise in experiential differences between girls and boys is new — and unsettling. 

Hundreds of students at Adriana Kuch’s high school staged a protest last week in response to her death and the lack of support from the school’s hierarchy. Yet Luca Canzoneri, a 15-year-old student at the school, told The New York Post that the school’s administration had been “making fun” of its students for protesting in the wake of her suicide. 

The CDC report must not be ignored. This is an obvious inflection point that must be addressed so that there are not more girls like Adriana Kuch — victims of violence who are then literally bullied to death. 

“Adriana took her own life because nobody at the school was able to help or care or step in,” Roman Valez, a sophomore, told WNBC. “I would actually like to teach the people who bully what they’re actually doing and how it affects us.” 

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling 988, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting ‘Home’ to 741741 anytime.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.