Reflections on Donna Jackson Nakazawa's 'Girls on the Brink'

Donna Jackson Nakazawa's Girls on the Brink shares 15 strategies for raising emotionally healthful girls admist the concerning state of adolescent mental health. After her talk at UCLA's Open Mind series, we reflected on how music can be harbored to positively influence the lives of today's teens.

March 29, 2024

By Saskia Jorgensen

We were thrilled to attend the recent conversation between Girls on the Brink author Donna Jackson Nakazawa and researcher and clinician Dr. Ada Gillis hosted as part of the insightful Open Mind series hosted by the UCLA Friends of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. 

Girls on the Brink highlights the concerning state of mental health among adolescent girls, specifically referencing 2019 findings that 1 in 3 adolescent girls experience symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder, compared to 1 in 10 adolescent boys. The conversation between Nakazawa and Dr. Gillis explored potential explanations for these discrepancies and the ways that parents can support their teens. 

As our own work at SoS aims to support adolescent mental health, Nakazawa's talk led us to reflect on the ways that music and art can positively influence the lives of today’s teens.

1. Changes in social engagement 

Between the ubiquity of social media and changes in social interactions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, today’s adolescents are growing up in a very different social world than past generations. These differences can make it hard for parents and other adults to relate to their teens' social experiences and provide emotional support. While social media can serve as a platform for adolescents to form and maintain connections, it is not a replacement for in-person social interaction.

Physical spaces dedicated to music and art can bring people together on the basis of a shared interest. Whether it is a concert or a music class, youth can interact with each other and form lasting friendships in these shared spaces. 

2. Chronic stressors and lost sense of safety

Today’s teens are constantly exposed to stressful, and oftentimes, intense current events across the world. Nakazawa discusses a lost sense of safety in youth as they are acutely aware of environmental issues, such as climate change, hate crimes, discriminatory policies, school shootings, and other dangerous or traumatic events targeting and/or influencing the livelihoods and futures of themselves and their peers. 

Both listening to and creating music are healthy coping mechanisms for youth (and adults!) to navigate stressful times. Musicians and fan communities may be a vehicle through which youth can learn about world events and get involved in activism efforts, which is shown to be protective against systemic stressors. 

3. Basic developmental tasks of the teenage years

Adolescence is a time of identity exploration, social connection, and learning to navigate the world as an individual. It is a developmental period defined by both psychological and biological change. There is an ongoing trend towards an earlier onset of puberty, meaning that biological changes are occurring before many of the life experiences that help people develop skills and knowledge to navigate stress and change. 

As youth explore their identities and their role in the world around them, they may turn to art and music to see where they fit in. Positive representation within the media, as well as artistic exploration of themes related to their identities, may help youth maintain optimism and see themselves as a part of something bigger.

4. Sexualization of young women

Nakazawa discusses the blurred line between childhood and adult female sexuality. Many young women report feeling sexualized from a young age, shortening their years of time to explore the world as a child before being viewed through the misogynistic gaze. Nakazawa describes how empowering it can be for young women to see their mothers and other adults in their life confront misogynistic comments head on. 

The arts are a place where female artists are celebrated for their contributions beyond their appearance. This year’s Grammy awards were dominated by female nominees and winners, which is monumental for young girls who look up to these artists. After receiving the most awards of the night, Phoebe Bridgers garnered attention for calling out historical inequities at the Grammys, saying, "The ex-president of the Recording Academy, Neil Portnow, said that if women want to be nominated and win Grammys, that they should 'step up’. To him, I'd like to say, 'I know you're not dead yet, but when you are, rot in piss.’”


The stressors surrounding us all uniquely impact youth, who are often left out of conversations and decision making. Mental health discrepancies between youth on the basis of their identities, including the additional stressors placed upon gender diverse youth, are understudied and under-attended to. It is critical that parents, researchers, clinicians, and organizations work together to support our youth by thinking of creative ways to capitalize upon the existing role of music in teens’ lives.

You can watch the full conversation between Donna Jackson Nakazawa and Dr. Ada Gillis here.