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.
Illustration: June Hsu
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.
Devon said that more needs 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,” she said.
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.
Children said they felt pressure from friends to be good-looking, but those who felt that boys should be tough and girls should have nice clothes were least happy with life.
“Issues like appearance, gender stereotypes and sexuality should be included in the new relationships and sex education curriculum,” Reed said. “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 ￡2 billion [US$2.59 billion] funding shortfall facing council children’s services departments by 2020.”
“These shocking statistics on self-harming among children show the extent of the mental health crisis in our country,” said British Member of Parliament Luciana Berger, who is also president of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health.
“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,” she added. “The government’s continued disregard for early intervention and prevention is failing a generation.”
JESSICA, 18, SOUTH WALES
“I started self-harming when I was 13. I don’t really know why I started doing it. I guess I had a lot going on and wanted to feel in control of something.
“The first time I did it I was in the bath and I accidentally cut myself shaving. At first I was panicking, but then it felt kind of nice, so I started doing it on purpose with various different objects. I would do it all the time, it became addictive.
“I would feel euphoric afterward. I found physical pain easier to control than what was going on in my mind. The moments I felt pain were the moments my thoughts stopped and all I focused on was the physical discomfort.
“I thought I was the only one doing it, but my friends were too. It came up in conversation and I tried to help them. I encouraged them to seek help, although I never told them I was also doing the same.
“As well as cutting myself, I also developed issues with food. I think both things stemmed from all the pressure I was feeling. Girls feel pressure from a younger and younger age these days. We feel pressure to be perfect and when they don’t achieve that they punish themselves.
“I am not sure why girls are more prone to this. Perhaps it is because there is more pressure on us to look a certain way. You tend to see more female models and girls strive to be like them. The gender stereotype is that boys are manly and girls have to be pretty. This leads to people feeling self-conscious and like they need to look and act a certain way. It makes you feel like you cannot be yourself.
“I saw a girl this weekend and she was so young, but plastered in makeup and fake tan and acrylic nails. She was way too young to feel that pressure.
“The solution is better education about mental health, so people know where to go if they are struggling. There needs to be more resources. I am getting better now and on the road back to recovery, but it’s been a long journey. The most important part of getting better for me was knowing I am not alone and others have experienced this.”
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