The self-harm crisis blighting British teens

Desperate measures: A parallel study found that school and appearance made children unhappiest.

What should be done about self-harm? A shocking Children’s Society study has revealed that over a fifth of 14-year-old British girls said they had hurt themselves on purpose in the last year.

Sophie Martin began to self-harm at the age of 12 after experiencing bullying at school. When her parents ended up in court in a custody battle, Sophie blamed herself.

“I thought it was my fault, I had to be punished for it. And that’s when I started self-harming,” she said. “It was a release, it was painful, but it made me feel better.”

This is no isolated case. According to a report by the Children’s Society that surveyed 11,000 children, 22% of girls and 9% of boys had self-harmed in the past year. This mirrors a study from last year — rates of self-harm rates remained constant among 10 to 12-year-olds and 17 to 19-year-olds, but there has been a dramatic increase among 13 to 16-year-olds.

The study also found that 46% of children who reported being attracted to others of the same gender or both genders had self-harmed.

Natasha Devon, a mental health campaigner, said that the figures were upsetting but 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” she said. “They [do] it in response to not feeling heard or not being able to articulate what was wrong. Over time it is addictive.”

According to Devon, most mental health difficulties start around the age of 14. “There is a spike in dopamine which makes people more prone to risk-taking […] It’s a crucial stage in a young person’s neurological development.”

Some people, including Devon, are blaming austerity. “You can see a sharp rise in mental health conditions such as anxiety and self-harm since 2010 and that is when austerity began.”

Self-harm can include everything from punching or hitting to cutting or burning.

Writing for HuffPost, Sara Spary explains that the warning signs of self-harm can be hard to spot. Teenagers often cover up bruises and cuts or explain them away as accidents. The emotional signs, she says, include depression, low motivation, tearfulness, sudden changes in weight, drinking or taking drugs, and withdrawn behaviour.

What can be done to ease this crisis?

Time to talk

The answer lies with institutions, say some. Schools must raise awareness of mental health. They could also stop piling pressure on young people through examinations and concentrate more on sport and music. Health care provision for mental health also remains woeful. Government policy could change this.

Society needs to change, reply others. The report says that concerns about appearance and gender stereotypes contribute to children’s unhappiness. Another huge factor is social media, which romanticises self-harm and makes problems like bullying or body-shaming far more intense than they were in the past.

You Decide

  1. What can be done about the self-harm crisis?
  2. Why do you think more girls self-harm more than boys?


  1. As a class, brainstorm a list of everything that you think counts as a mental health problem.
  2. List three pieces of advice you might give to someone who is self-harming.

Some People Say...

“Depression is the inability to construct a future.”

Rollo May

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Children’s Society surveyed 11,000 14-year-olds and found that 22% of girls and 9% of boys said they had self-harmed in the year prior to the questionnaire. This would mean that 110,000 children aged 14 may be self-harming — 76,000 girls and 33,000 boys. We know that gay and bisexual teenagers are more likely to self-harm.
What do we not know?
We do not know how much the rise in mental illness is due to an increase in instances or an increasing awareness among the public who are then able to successfully identify those suffering symptoms. We also do not know why girls suffer more than boys. Worries over appearance have been suggested as the main factor.

Word Watch

Children’s Society
A British charity founded in 1881. It describes its mission as twofold. First, to directly improve the lives of children and young people for whom it provides services, and second, to create a positive shift in social attitudes to improve the situations facing all children and young people.
The study was conducted by the British Medical Journal.
It functions as a neurotransmitter, meaning that it is a chemical that is responsible for transmitting signals in between the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain. If the brain does not make enough dopamine, it can lead to Parkinson’s disease.
The term used for the government’s policy under David Cameron of reducing government spending in order to combat government deficits in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Government policy
Earlier this year the government set up a Ministry for Loneliness. The Department of Health has also said it is investing an extra £300 million to provide more mental health help in schools — including trained specialist staff.


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