Being a Girl Scout troop leader is fun and exciting! You’ve got all of these plans of traditions you want to pass on to your troop, especially if you’ve been a scout before, and you want to help develop the girls in your troop into leaders and good stewards of the future.
However, your role can have some unexpected responsibilities that you run into along the way, and one of them can be keeping an eye out for the well-being of the girls in your troop. Unfortunately, girls of all ages are internalizing what’s going on in the world, and many experience traumatic events at home in their daily life. All of that can really take its toll, and manifest as mental health conditions.
In recent years, suicide rates and mental illnesses have been increasing for school-age kids in the United States, and although there are certain risk factors, no child is exempt, especially with how inaccessible mental health care is for many families. As an adult in their life, you could be the one to save a life and bring much-needed help to a girl in your troop. With that in mind, here are some signs of depression and anxiety to look out for in your troop’s interactions.
Not Responding to Communication
If any of your scouts regularly struggle to respond to texts, emails, or other forms of communication, it could be because they feel overwhelmed and don’t have the motivation to put out that emotional energy. Always remember that this could be a deeper sign of mental health problems, not just forgetful scouts.
If any of your scouts are seeming less interested in getting together and coming to events, this can be a sign of depression or anxiety. This can include canceling last minute, repetitively missing events because they were sleeping, declining to attend for no good reason, not participating with the other girls, or simply not showing up. The first time might be okay, but repetitive instances might be a signal that they need mental health assistance.
Signs of hopelessness, grief, or suffering
This one may seem more obvious, but it’s still important to point out. If a scout is experiencing fresh or ongoing grief (this can be from a loss, or also from tough life events like moving), you notice warning signs like exceptionally sad art or social media posts, or you hear anything from a scout about things seeming hopeless or unable to improve, it is very important to look into if they’re okay.
Lack of engagement in usual interests
Sometimes you have a scout who is very involved in particular parts of scouting, and seems happy and fine, and then starts decreasing their involvement and seeming less interested overall. This can be a sign that their interests are dulling to them because of depression.
Signs of self harm or lack of self care
Self harm may sound like it would be an obvious indicator, but it can take on many forms. It could be scars from physical injuries, but it could also be overlooked things like working a lot of hours, not sleeping, not eating, not practicing personal hygiene, or any number of things that can make their own life less enjoyable. Mental illness can make it very difficult to care for oneself.
A lot of people with anxiety disorders come off as “procrastinators.” They put off tasks that may seem small to you because everything feels like too much. Instead of pressuring your troop members to perform better, check in on them and see if they’re okay. This is one of the often-overlooked symptoms of a mental health disorder.
Signs of low self-esteem
Sometimes, a girl will let you in on the fact that she sees herself negatively. This could be comments like, “The group would be better without me,” self-deprecating jokes that may come off as simply humorous, they might think they’re a burden or make comments about not liking their appearance, weight, or personality. This could be teenage insecurity, or it could be a hint at something much deeper, like mental disorders and suicidal thoughts.
Always seem busy or stressed
Sometimes teens overload themselves in an attempt to distract from what’s going on in their internal world, whether that’s a conscious or unconscious decision. This can be a sign that they have a serious mental illness like major depression, even if they look happy and successful.
Triggered by small things
If a scout is crying or snapping at people over interactions that seem insignificant, you might want to distance yourself, but that’s a good opportunity to do the opposite and lean in to see what’s going on for them. A reaction that seems overblown is a sign that the interaction you’re seeing isn’t all that’s happening for them, and they might be experiencing symptoms of PTSD, bipolar disorder, or other mental health issues.
What to Do if a Scout is in Danger
If you’re noticing these warning signs of mental health needs in your troop, it can be hard to know what to do. Here are a few main things you can do as a troop leader to help to the best of your availability:
Keep reaching out
Don’t give up on a scout who is ghosting you, not showing up to things, or even snapping at you. They might need extra support and care. Keep reaching out and checking in with them. Prioritize them as a person over the troop-related discussions, even if that means setting aside their Girl Scout stuff for a while.
Don’t talk negatively about them
When someone is seeming flaky, not getting things in on time, snapping at people in the group, or exhibiting other less-than-pleasant symptoms, it can be tempting to make comments about them behind their back. Instead, take the high road, and don’t let yourself or anyone else say negative things about that troop member.
Of course, this is a normal standard, whether or not your scouts have symptoms of mental illness, but it’s especially important in this case. If any big events like suicide attempts happen to members of your troop, it is completely inappropriate to gossip about them or make the girl feel awkward or unwelcome.
Help, if possible
A girl who is overcome by depression and anxiety might benefit from some hands-on help, either with troop-related things, like earning badges, or life things, like connecting her with resources to help with her emotional well-being. Asking her and her parents if there’s anything you can do to help, and extending any helpful things you can come up with on your own, can really make a difference. If a scout member ever reaches out to you and she’s in immediate danger, call 911 immediately.
Encourage professional help, if needed
Sometimes a troop member has worse mental illness symptoms than you can address or help with. If you have mental health concerns about a troop member, talk with your scout and their family members to see if they already know of any mental conditions, and whether the scout is getting the mental health services they need. Connect them with their school counselor or another person who can be of resource to them if their family can’t access therapy due to their health insurance or other factors.
Finally, know that some cases are too intense for you to really be able to change, but you can always be encouraging, gracious, and helpful to the best of your ability. Being a trauma-informed troop leader can help you make a significant impact on your scouts’ lives.