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The mental health needs of Black and Hispanic girls often go unmet. This group wraps them in support

WAUKEGAN, Ill. — On a sunny but brisk November afternoon inside Robert Abbott Middle School, six eighth grade girls quickly filed into a small but colorful classroom and seated themselves in a circle.

Yuli Paez-Naranjo, a Working on Womanhood counselor, sported a purple WOW T-shirt as she led the group in a discussion about how values can inform decisions.

“Do you ever feel like two little angels are sitting on each of your shoulders, one whispering good things to you, the other whispering bad things?” Paez-Naranjo asked the girls. The students nodded and giggled.

Working on Womanhood, a school-based mental health program, makes students feel ‘heard and understood’

At the 50-minute WOW circle, girls have a chance to set aside the pressures of the school day, laugh with and listen to one another, and work through personal problems. The weekly meeting is the centerpiece of individual and group therapy that WOW offers throughout the school year to Black and Hispanic girls, and to students of all races who identify as female or nonbinary, in grades 6 to 12.

Brown & Black girls support Working on Womanhood: Yellow school bus parked on street in front of red brick building

Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

The Working on Womanhood program operates in Waukegan, Ill., and several other school districts around the country.

Created in 2011 by Black and Hispanic social workers at the nonprofit organization Youth Guidance, WOW’s goal is to build a healthy sense of self-awareness, confidence and resilience in a population that is often underserved by mental health programs.

Youth Guidance offers WOW to about 350 students in Waukegan Community Unit School District 60, which serves an industrial town of about 88,000 located about 30 miles north of Chicago. Just over 93 percent of the district’s 13,600 students are Black or Hispanic, and about 67 percent come from families classified as low income.

“Why fight when you can talk it out?”
Ka’Neya Lehn, student, Robert Abbott Middle School

The program also serves students in Chicago, Boston, Kansas City and Dallas. WOW counselors work with school-based behavioral health teams, administrators and teachers to identify students with high stress levels who might benefit from the program.

Recent research shows that WOW works: At a time when teen girls’ mental health is in crisis, a 2023 University of Chicago Education Lab randomized control trial found that WOW reduced PTSD symptoms among Chicago Public Schools participants by 22 percent and decreased their anxiety and depression.

Multiple hurdles, including funding, counselor burnout and distrust of mental health programs stand in the way of getting WOW to more students. But one way the program overcomes impediments is by bringing the program to the place students spend most of their time — school.

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