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40% of girls at some CPS schools show signs of PTSD. This program is helping them heal.

Working on Womanhood is helping female students cope with trauma, anxiety and depression, preliminary data from a new UChicago study shows.

Working on Womanhood is a school-based program serving over 2,000 students in CPS hoping to improve the lives of young women of color exposed to high rates of trauma, inequity and poverty in under-resourced communities.
Provided

Nearly 40 percent of teen girls attending high schools around Chicago are experiencing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or other trauma-related distress, preliminary data from a new study shows.

What’s more, about one in four of the 1,500 low-income students surveyed showed signs of depression and anxiety, the University of Chicago’s Urban Labs found.

Students surveyed also experienced at least two traumatic events on average, including being robbed or attacked or witnessing an attack. But the stats are likely worse because those numbers do not include incidents of sex abuse or assault or forms of domestic violence.

“Young girls internalize a lot of these stresses that is happening in their life,” Gail Day, program director of Working on Womanhood, said. “That is why a lot of them are suffering in silence because they feel there is no safe place to talk about it.”

But Day’s program offers some hope in helping young women work through their anxiety, depression or PTSD symptoms, the UChicago study found.

Founded in 2011, the program is now serving more than 2,000 students in 40 Chicago Public Schools. Most are African American (61%) or Hispanic girls (34%).

The two-year curriculum targets girls and young women at high-risk for exposure to trauma and includes students with suicidal thoughts, feelings of hopelessness or being alone, among other risk factors. Counselors meet with up to a dozen students every week in a classroom that is considered a safe space “free from stigma and judgement,” the program says.

Students in Working on Womanhood take part in exercises designed to boost self-awareness, emotional intelligence, healthy relationships, goal setting and leadership.
Provided/Youth Guidance

The study examined the program’s during the first several months of a rollout in 10 additional CPS high schools this academic year. Most were located on the South and West Sides and included Morgan Park High School, Curie Metropolitan High School and North-Grand High School.

There was a 22% decrease in the number of students experiencing PTSD symptoms after six months, the study found. There was a 20% decrease in how much those PTSD-related symptoms impacted the lives of the students.

Anxiety and depression in the students also dropped by 9%.

“The heart of Working on Womanhood is that it offers young women a stepping stone,” Day said. “Stepping stones in rewriting their narrative, becoming more resilient and then as a result truly becoming empowered.”

Youth Guidance’s Working on Womanhood alumna Monique Harvey (center) speaks about her experience in the program and how it has helped her excel in school.
Youth Guidance

Able to soar

Monique Harvey, 21, says she was transformed by the program. Harvey — who grew up in South Shore — is currently a student at Columbia College and believes she wouldn’t be where she is today if it wasn’t for Working on Womanhood.

“I thought of myself as a baby bird with broken wings trying to fly without guidance,” Harvey said of herself when she first started the program.

She was homeless while in high school and said the program not only helped her find a place to live but also helped her find herself emotionally.

“Now I see myself as a bird with scarred wings, still healing, but being able to soar because of my circle of support,” Harvey said.

Working on Womanhood is an initiative by Youth Guidance, which has worked in CPS since 1969. Youth Guidance runs Becoming a Man, which has received national attention for its work with boys. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently gave the program $200,000 from his campaign funds.

“We know if we do this right, we save and transform lives,” Michelle Adler Morrison, CEO of Youth Guidance, said.

The full report on Working on Womanhood is expected to be released sometime this fall.

CPS officials were not immediately available to comment on the study.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South and West sides.