Sun, Sep 02, 2018 - Page 7 News List

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

Results from the UK Children’s Survey suggest that tens of thousands of 14-year-old girls are hurting themselves as a result of pressure from school, austerity and gender expectations

By Sarah Marsh and Amanda Boateng  /  The Guardian

Illustration: June Hsu

More than 100,000 children aged 14 in the UK are harming themselves, with one in four girls of that age having deliberately hurt themselves, a report showed.

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

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

Experts have put the behavior 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,” Children’s Society chief executive Matthew Reed said. “Worries about how they look are a big issue, especially for girls.”

The charity analyzed figures from the Millennium Cohort Survey, carried out by researchers from University College London, which follows children born in the UK in 2000 and 2001.

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

Nearly one-quarter (24 percent) said that they heard jokes or comments about other people’s bodies or looks all the time, while more than one-fifth (22 percent) of those in secondary school said that 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 the pattern did not apply to boys.

Mental health campaigner Natasha Devon, who works with young people in schools, said that while the self-harm figures are upsetting, they are 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 is the average age at which most mental health difficulties 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,” she said.

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,” she said. “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 hospitalized in England after self-harming has nearly doubled from 20 years ago, British National Health Service 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 last year.

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