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Many of Chicago’s girls live with PTSD. This group helps them

  • Larger numbers of young women in Chicago have symptoms of PTSD
  • This school-based counseling program is helping reduce their symptoms
  • But it may not be as effective in improving things like academic outcomes

A group of young women participating in Working On Womanhood. Photo courtesy of Youth Impact.

(NewsNation) — Nearly 40% of young women attending Chicago Public Schools in grades 9 through 11 exhibit signs of PTSD — those are rates that are almost double that of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. While those veterans dealt with life in a warzone, Chicago’s young people are often growing up around high rates of poverty and gun violence.

That’s a problem the Working On Womanhood (WOW) program seeks to address.

Run by the nonprofit Youth Guidance, WOW is a school-based group counseling program that aims to provide support to young women by using therapeutic techniques.

The program typically consists of 50-minute group sessions that meet once a week during the school year; counselors lead the young women through talk therapy. WOW counselors may also provide individual counseling or refer girls out to other services.

Since its launch in 2011, the program now serves 2,600 students at 41 schools across four cities: Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Kansas City.

The University of Chicago Education Lab recently studied the impact of WOW in Chicago’s schools. NewsNation spoke to Harold Pollack, one of the academics who worked with the team that studied the program.

The following interview has been edited and paraphrased for length and clarity.

NewsNation: Why is a program aimed at girls so important?

Pollack: There was a tremendous interest in programs for boys because that was related to violence prevention. One of the challenges that we had in getting services for girls is that the girls were experiencing so many of the same traumas but they were largely overlooked because the ways that a lot of these issues manifested for girls was much more internalized so it was easy to overlook. They were experiencing, PTSD, depression, anxiety.

This WOW program is about helping these young women be less stressed, less depressed, less anxious and able to navigate the world they live in with less mental pain.

NewsNation: What do the WOW counselors help the girls with?

Pollack: The WOW curriculum is really designed from the perspective of people who have walked in the shoes of these young women. It’s really, how do you navigate the world as a 17-year-old young woman in Chicago?

There’s so many aspects of their lives that they need to be able to talk about with each other, with a responsible adult. They live in a world where there’s a lot of poverty, a lot of violence, they’re objectified as young women in the dating world of 17-year-olds. How do we give them space to navigate those issues in a very open way?

The five core values [the counselors] focus on are self-awareness, emotional intelligence, health relationships, visionary goal setting and leadership.

Young women involved in WOW. Photo courtesy of Youth Guidance.

NewsNation: So you studied the implementation of this program in some Chicago schools during the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 academic years. What did you find?

Pollack: It helps the kids with some of their symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression. [The study found that participating for four months led to a 22% reduction in PTSD symptoms.]

We’re taking the person who was having some symptoms and those symptoms become less severe.

NewsNation: Was there anything that the program wasn’t able to achieve?

Pollack: We did not improve the kids’ grades very much. This is not an intervention that improves academic and administrative outcomes. We didn’t prevent arrests and crimes for one simple reason — the girls aren’t doing the crime, so there’s nothing to prevent.

But there’s a ton of kids that are experiencing depressive symptoms that this is helpful for.

NewsNation: How costly is this intervention to implement?

Pollack: We’re talking about an intervention that’s like $2,300 per kid. Each counselor has about 55 youths per counselor, so it’s not super expensive. And it makes a difference.


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