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Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living

Quarter of 14-year-old girls in UK have self-harmed, report finds

Date: 29/8/2018
Summary: Children’s Society analysis suggests tens of thousands hurting themselves on purpose

More than 100,000 children aged 14 in the UK are self-harming, with one in four girls of this age having deliberately hurt themselves, according to a new report.

In figures that show the scale of the mental health crisis affecting young people, the Children’s Survey analysed a survey of 11,000 14-year-olds which found that a quarter of girls and nearly one in 10 boys had self-harmed in a year.

The charity estimated that 110,000 children aged 14 may be self-harming, including 76,000 girls and 33,000 boys.

Experts have put the behaviour down to a combination of pressure from school, austerity and gender expectations.

“It is deeply worrying that so many children are unhappy to the extent that they are self-harming. Worries about how they look are a big issue, especially for girls,” said Matthew Reed, the chief executive of the Children’s Society.

The charity analysed figures from the millennium cohort survey, carried out by researchers from University College London, which follows children born in the UK in 2000-01.

The report also included a survey of children aged 10-17 and their parents across 2,000 households, which found that the issues of most concern to children were school and their appearance.

Nearly a quarter (24%) said they heard jokes or comments about other people’s bodies or looks all the time, while more than a fifth (22%) of those in secondary school said jokes or comments were often made about people’s sexual activity. Both made girls feel much worse about their appearance and less happy with their life as a whole, but this pattern did not apply to boys.

The mental health campaigner Natasha Devon, who works with young people in schools, said that while the self-harm figures were upsetting they were not surprising.

“Self-harm at its root is a coping mechanism like having a glass of wine or smoking a cigarette … these are all self-harming activities … most people say they started doing it as it felt good,” she said. “They did it in response to not feeling heard or not being able to articulate what was wrong. Over time it is addictive.”

Devon said that 14 was the average age at which most mental health difficulties can start. “There is a spike in [the brain chemical] dopamine [at that age] which makes people more prone to risk-taking and there are a lot of hormones. It’s a crucial stage in a young person’s neurological development.”

Devon put some of the blame on austerity.

“The world is just a more difficult place to navigate,” she said. “You can see a sharp rise in mental health conditions such as anxiety and self-harm since 2010 and that is when austerity began.” 

She also blamed a greater emphasis on tests in education. “We lost things such as … sport, art and music in school. It’s interesting that there is a higher prevalence [of self-harm] among girls. It is to do with the ways girls and boys are socialized – girls are taught anger is unacceptable and boys are taught showing distress is unacceptable.”

The number of girls under the age of 18 being treated in hospital in England after self-harming has nearly doubled compared with 20 years ago, NHS figures show. There were 13,463 cases last year, compared with 7,327 in 1997. In contrast, the number of admissions for boys who self-harmed rose from 2,236 in 1997 to 2,332 in 2017.

Devon said that more needed to be done to treat the causes of self-harm. “We need to look at the environment young people exist in at home and in school so these issues don’t arise in the first place rather than fire-fighting once they have manifested.”

The Children’s Society report suggested that both boys and girls can be harmed by gender stereotypes and the pressure to live up to them. Childrensaid they felt under pressure from friends to be good-looking, but those who felt boys should be tough and girls should have nice clothes were least happy with life.

Reed said: “Issues like appearance, gender stereotypes and sexuality should be included in the new relationships and sex education curriculum.

“However, early support for vulnerable children and families in the community, which can help prevent mental health problems from developing, is also vital, and ministers must urgently address the £2bn funding shortfall facing council children’s services departments by 2020.”

Luciana Berger, the MP who is president of Labour Campaign for Mental Health, said: “These shocking statistics on self-harming among children show the extent of the mental health crisis in our country. Children in Britain urgently need more mental health support but the children and young people’s mental health green paper lacked the ambition needed to solve this crisis. The government’s continued disregard for early intervention and prevention is failing a generation.”

Source: The Guardian

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