Growing numbers of young people are self-harming to cope with everyday life, with ever-younger children being affected.
Children’s charities claimed last week that while older teens used to be more prone to self-harm, it has now become common among 10 to 12-year-olds.
An estimated one in 12 young people in the UK are believed to have self-harmed at some point in their lives, usually by cutting themselves in secret. Girls are more likely to self-harm than boys.
Yet teachers often don’t know how to spot signs or what to do if they discover a student is affected. In some schools, staff are told to ignore evidence of self-harming and to put it down to a phase that young people will grow out of.
The children’s charities joined forces on Friday (March 1) to highlight the issue on National Self-harm Awareness Day, in an attempt to reduce the stigma attached to the condition so that more young people seek help.
The organisations – ChildLine, YouthNet, YoungMinds and the website selfharm.co.uk – said they had seen a dramatic rise in the numbers of young people affected.
ChildLine said the numbers of calls received about the problem had risen by 167 per cent over the past two years.
Self-harming has now become one of the top five concerns reported among 13-year-olds last year, whereas previously it was seen as a big issue for older teenagers.
In the year to March there were more than 600 counselling sessions – calls and messages – between ChildLine and children aged 10 to 12 where the main concern was self-harm. This was out of a total of more than 16,000 sessions on the subject among children and teenagers of all ages.
The most common form of self-harm involves the cutting of the arms or legs with a razor or knife, but experts said it could include burning, biting, hitting, hair-pulling and taking an overdose.
The most widely accepted definition was “a wide range of things that people do to themselves in a deliberate and usually hidden way, which are damaging”.
Although some believe self-harming is attention-seeking, most do so in secret and cover up their injuries. Nor does it mean that the person affected is suicidal.
While the rate of self-harm among the over-25s is believed to be low, it is most common among the 11 to 25 year group. According to the Mental Health Foundation those who self-harm tend to have a difficult home life and may have been abused, rejected or neglected.
Some may suffer from psychological conditions such as eating disorders or anxiety and depression, and in some cases take drugs or drink alcohol excessively. There are concerns that numbers of incidents are rising as problems in society such as unemployment, family break-up and poverty increasingly affect family life.
YoungMinds said research it carried out last year revealed that four in 10 young people who self-harmed did not know where to go for help and one in three parents admitted they would not seek professional help if their child was self-harming.
The study also found that many teachers did not know what to do or say if they came across a pupil who was self-harming. Usually they referred cases to the school nurse or the staff member in school who is responsible for child protection.
One London teacher said staff at her school had been told to ignore signs of self-harming by pupils because it was “a phase they usually grow out of”.
“I didn’t think that was right, as I would want to know if that was my child,” she said. “And we might be able to get them to accept help.”
Dr Ranj Singh, paediatrician and television presenter, said: “The problem is related to emotional distress and anguish and feelings of anxiety, pain and depression. A lot of that can be due to increasing societal pressure as a whole.”
He said it could be related to bullying, problems in the home including family relationships, domestic abuse, alcohol as well as personal issues such as a young person’s developing sexuality.
“Self-harm is often the only way they feel they can cope,” he added. “A lot of people think self-harm is rare but it is not. It’s quite common and it’s very complex. It has become a taboo subject and there is a hidden group that are really hurting.
“In my professional role I see evidence of young people self-harming far too much and yet I only see the tip of the iceberg.”