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Gender stereotypes in schools impact girls and boys with mental health difficulties – study

Majority – 43 out of 52 – felt girls and boys experienced mental health in different ways because of stereotypes that girls are open about their emotions, but boys will hide them.

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Gender stereotypes mean that girls can be celebrated for their emotional openness and maturity in school, while boys are seen as likely to mask their emotional distress through silence or disruptive behaviors. Since these stereotypes are not necessarily true, there is now worry that the mental health needs of girls and boys might be missed at school, which makes them an “at risk” group.

This is according to a study – “Mental health and gender discourses in school: ‘Emotional’ girls and boys ‘at risk’” by Lauren Stentiford, George Koutsouris, Tricia Nash and Alexandra Allan – that was published in Educational Review.

For this study, the researchers interviewed 34 students aged between 12 and 17 at two secondary schools in England to ask them: “Do you think that girls and boys experience mental health in the same way?”. Seventeen students identified as female, 12 as male, and five as gender diverse. They also interviewed 18 members of staff, including a headteacher, school counsellor, SENCO, and classroom teacher.

One school was a mixed grammar school in a predominantly white, middle-class rural area and another was a mixed comprehensive school in a predominantly white, working-class urban area. The research took place in autumn 2022.

Findings included:

  • Majority – 43 out of 52 – felt girls and boys experienced mental health in different ways because of stereotypes that girls are open about their emotions, but boys will hide them.
  • The phrase ‘man up’ was referenced multiple times by different staff members and students in both schools.
  • Participants spoke of persistent and troublesome expectations that boys should not show their emotions.

According to Stentiford, “there was a perception that girls are at an advantage over boys in receiving mental health support.” This was because “students and staff members tended to position girls as above boys in the hierarchy for mental health support because of their perceived emotional openness. Girls were seen as being more emotionally mature than boys and would actively look for help when they needed it.”

The implications were that “girls are seen as more likely to be identified quickly as in need of mental health support, whereas boys could be ‘missed’ because their disruptive behaviors are misinterpreted. Both girls and boys therefore remain ‘trapped’ in unhelpful gender stereotypes around mental health,” Stentiford said.

The researchers suggested for the recognition of “a new and emerging form of gender inequality, set against the context of a perceived growing mental health ‘crisis’ among young people.”

“There are dangers around devaluing girls’ wellbeing if ‘emotional’ girls are seen as unfairly advantaged and taking up time and support for mental health difficulties at the expense of boys, who are seen as particularly ‘at risk’ and a hidden problem,” Stentiford ended.

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