Working on Womanhood: WOW

While young men are more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of gun violence, young women in communities experiencing high rates of crime are also exposed to violence as witnesses, victims, and sometimes, participants. Estimates from our own work suggest that 38 percent of school-aged girls in neighborhood high schools on Chicago’s south, west and northwest sides exhibit signs of PTSD; the prevalence of probable PTSD among these young women is twice that of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan (Schell & Marshall, 2008). Despite the clear and urgent need to support these girls who are exposed to violence and trauma, there is a dearth of evidence about what works. 

Since 2011, Youth Guidance’s Working on Womanhood (WOW) program has provided in-school trauma-focused counseling and support to girls across Chicago. Equipped with behavioral science tools and approaches, WOW clinicians work to empower young women to challenge unhelpful thoughts, resolve conflict, and build resilience, self-esteem and self-efficacy, and future orientation. Through teaching and reinforcing key concepts, WOW aims to reduce post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms among young women in underserved communities, helping them to thrive in school and achieve their aspirations. 

To test the WOW model, we have partnered with Chicago Public Schools and Youth Guidance to implement an RCT from Fall 2017 through Spring 2020. This study has been implemented in 10 high schools on Chicago's south, west, and northwest sides. Because some of the most important outcomes are not visible in administrative data, a key component of this study is a series of comprehensive surveys designed to capture program impacts on mental health and general well-being, including outcomes such as self-image, self-efficacy, and future orientation. 

After only a few months of WOW programming, we observed a 22% decrease in PTSD symptom severity scores, which measures the frequency and intensity of PTSD symptoms, and a 38% decrease in the number of youth whose scores indicate “moderate trauma-related distress”. In addition to significant reductions in the effect of this PTSD in girls’ everyday lives, we also observed significant decreases in measures of anxiety and depression for young girls.