Self-harm by children rises steeply in England and Wales
Nearly 19,000 children received hospital treatment for self-harm in 2015 – a 14% increase since 2012
Nearly 19,000 children and young people were treated in hospital in England and Wales after self-harming in the last year, a figure that has risen steeply in recent years, according to a leading children’s charity.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), which collected the data from hospitals using freedom of information requests, says the rise of 14% over the last three years – an extra 2,400 cases – is worrying. A growing number of hospital beds are being filled by children who have taken violent and drastic steps to alleviate their emotional pain and suffering, says the charity.
The children most likely to harm themselves are aged 13 to 17 and tend to be struggling to cope with the pressures of modern life, the charity warned.
Childline, run by the NSPCC, also delivered 50 counselling sessions a day in the last year to children and young people about self-harm. The charity is appealing for funds, saying it can deal with only three out of every four young people who call the free hotline.
One 14-year-old boy who contacted Childline said: “Sometimes I get flashbacks from what happened when I was younger and I cope with the horrible memories by cutting myself. School helped take my mind off things but now that the holidays are here I’m struggling. My parents always seem to be too busy for me and I don’t want to tell my friends what happened. I feel so miserable and lonely – can you please help?”
A 14-year-old girl told counsellors: “Recently I’ve lost some people that were really close to me. When I started to self-harm it seemed to mask the emotional pain I was feeling, even if it only helped for a little while. When I get the urge, I can’t seem to stop it until it’s done; otherwise I get really upset and angry. A couple of times I’ve gone too far and ended up in hospital.”
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “A frightening number of children and teenagers are being driven to self-harm as a way of dealing with unresolved feelings, tensions and distress in their lives.
“Knowing hospital beds are full of young people crying out for help should be a real wake-up call to all those [who] care for the wellbeing of the younger generation. It is vital we confront the fact that an increasing number are struggling to deal with the pressures and demands of modern-day life, to such an extent they are inflicting terrible damage upon themselves.”
Childline’s president, Dame Esther Rantzen, said it was deeply disturbing that children were ending up in hospital. “Self-harming is at epidemic level among young people: at Childline we hear from them every day.
“It has become one of the most common problems young people bring to us, and I know from our counsellors that these are some of the most painful stories we hear. Often the young people feel too ashamed and fearful to seek help from those around them, until they harm themselves so badly they have to be rushed to hospital.”
Dr Max Davie of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said the rise in the numbers was of real concern. “Whilst we don’t know what it was that brought all 19,000 children to self-harm, what we do know is that support was not offered early enough to prevent it from getting this serious. Early intervention is essential if we are to reduce the number of children self-harming and needing specialist mental health or emergency services.”
He called for comprehensive personal, health, social and economic (PHSE) teaching in all schools, which addresses a range of issues including eating disorders, self-harm and suicide, as well as positive relationships, sex education and the dangers of drugs and alcohol abuse.
“There are a lot of pressures on children. It is not easy being a child these days,” said Dr Jon Goldin, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and spokesman for the Royal College of Psychiatrists. “In some ways children are encouraged to grow up too fast.”
He cited the sexualisation of children in the media and the pressure of social media on children and adolescents to look good and as if they are having a good time, when the reality might be different. Cyberbullying is a problem and schools are focusing intensely on academic work and examinations. Children need also to learn about relationships and emotional wellbeing. “I think schools need permission from government to see that as part of their remit,” he said.
Economic and social factors affecting families are also part of it. “Young people are a kind of canary in the mine, drawing attention to other social problems,” he said. Sadly, he felt young people were not always optimistic about the future of themselves or their world and he said that they need their often-very-busy parents and others to find time to listen to them and help them understand their own distress.
Sarah Brennan, chief executive of YoungMinds, said the rise in self-harm was extremely worrying and called for early intervention. “We know from our research that young people face a huge range of pressures, including stress at school, college or university, body image issues, bullying on and offline, around-the-clock social media and uncertain job prospects. Difficult experiences in childhood – including bereavement, domestic violence or neglect – can also have a serious impact on mental health, often several years down the line.
“As a society, we need to do far more to prevent mental health problems from developing in the first place. To start with, we urgently need to rebalance our education system, so that schools are encouraged to prioritise wellbeing and not just exam results.”