NCPS | Concerning increases of self-harm amongst our children and…

Today is Self Injury Awareness Day. Our Children and Young People Mental Health Ambassador, Kate Day, has written about the concerning increases of self-harm amongst our children and young people.

In a Young Minds 2018-19 report, 24% of 17-year-olds reported having self-harmed in the previous year, and seven per cent reported having self-harmed with suicidal intent at some point in their lives. Research in an NHS publication suggests that 1 in 4 women have self-harmed in their lifetime and 1 in 10 for males.

Recent analysis shows an alarming increase amongst younger children in the UK and the rate has doubled over the last six years. The number of children aged nine to 12 admitted to hospital having hurt themselves intentionally rose from 221 in 2013-14 to 508 in 2019-20.

I think it is important for practitioners to know that the patterns around self-harm are changing especially in relation to age. Self-harming behaviours are often more commonly associated with teenagers but the rates of self-harm are now occurring in relatively younger children. It is perhaps harder for society to accept this concerning increase as the image of a young child self-harming may disturb any notions of childhood innocence. For me, most importantly, the recent figures indicate that mental health issues are increasing in this very young age range.

The reasons children and teenagers can self-harm are often complicated and will be different for every child or young person. Sometimes a child or teenager may not know the reasons they self-harm. For many children and young people, self-harm can feel like a way to cope with difficult feelings or to release tension. The physical pain of hurting themselves can feel like a distraction from the emotional pain they're struggling with. When working with children and young people in my practice I believe it is vital to help the child identify what may be (unconsciously) operating beneath their self-harming behaviour. For example, the child or young person may disclose having low self-esteem issues, eating issues, body dysmorphia, grieving, abuse, family problems or being bullied.

The increase in self harm figures also strongly suggest that the Covid-19 crisis has had a profound impact on the mental health of many children and young people. I recently contributed to a government report on the impact of child and adolescent mental health due to the pandemic and found that children’s self-harm had increased due to fears about the virus, the loss of routine and structure, social isolation and in some cases bereavement or other traumatic experiences. The current financial crisis and global disharmony is also affecting the mental health and wellbeing of our children. Many of the children I support report four main concerns relating to their self-harm and a decline in their mental health: lack of access to mental health services, family worries and tensions, anxiety about the world and negativity about the future.

Perhaps we cannot leave this article without discussing whether online content increases self-harming behaviour for children and young people. Whilst many children and young people turn to social media and online platforms for support with their mental health and self-harm and can have a positive experience there is arguably the other side. In a sample of over 5,200 participants, over three quarters saw harm content online for the first time at age 14 years or younger. In a study carried out by CCDH (Centre for Countering Digital Hate) TikTok targeted vulnerable teenagerswith more harmful content. Children and young people with the lowest social-emotional well-being are more likely to rely on social media for validation. The study found that new TikTok accounts were targeted with self-harm and eating disorder content within minutes of scrolling the apps “For You” feed. Sadly, suicide content was suggested within 2.6 minutes.

This is why it is so important practitioners talk to children and young people about their online use in a supportive and non-judgmental way. Discuss with them how it impacts upon their mental health and self-harm.

This is why I continue alongside NCS to campaign for the rights of all children and young people to access counselling in schools and further education.

This is why I wholeheartedly support the Online Safety Bill. We must protect children and young people from self-harm and suicide content.

Now for some good news:

Whilst we have a long way to go to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of our children and young people, I am thrilled to hear (while writing this article) that the government has listened to the calls from campaigners such as Samaritans to make content that encourages someone to harm themselves, illegal. A new self-harm offence will be created as part of the new law in the online safety bill.

Kate Day

  • Chair of the NCS CYP Register CYP Ambassador
  • Author of NCS’s CYP Competency Framework
  • Sits on an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) in a Fit and Healthy Childhood
  • Training Director for CYP specialist CPD training in Suicide and Self Harm
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