'Steep rise in self-harm shows we are failing young people in need of help'

The government needs to start listening to the concerns of young people at risk of self-harm, says the DfE's former mental health champion

Natasha Devon

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Record numbers of young people are seeking help for self-harm, a report published last week by the University of Manchester in the British Medical Journal revealed. In particular, rates of self-harm in girls aged between 13 and 16 have risen by 70 per cent in three years. The report also found that children who harm themselves are nine times more likely to die from drugs and alcohol posioning. 

Some commentators have pointed out that these latest statistics might merely reflect a rise in the number of young people coming forward to seek help, as opposed to a dramatic increase in the overall number of incidents of self-harm. 

The problem with this point of view is that it fails to take into account all the challenges that exist around collating self-harm statistics in the first place. Traditionally, researchers have taken into account only classic behaviours (such as cutting or self-poisoning) or those severe enough to warrant hospitalisation (usually the result of a protracted period of incrementally severe incidents). 

But drinking, drug-taking, even tattooing and piercings can all, technically, be a self-harming behaviour undertaken with the primary intention of damaging the physical self in a bid to provide respite from psychological distress

We don’t know – and will probably never know – exactly how many people self-harm. Squabbling over what each new study “means”, whether it truly heralds a “crisis”  or if this is something that has “always happened”, isn’t going to resolve anything. Petty arguments over the exact nature or questioning the very existence of the crisis in poor mental health among children and teenagers not only derails the efforts to help them, but it also leaves teachers trying to resolve situations they aren’t qualified for. 

Self-harm is always an attempt to communicate some form of distress. Any psychologist will tell you that the aim must never be simply to stop the self-harming behaviours, which are often a necessary coping mechanism, but to identify and deal with the underlying anguish. According to the charity Young Minds, one in six teenagers has self-harmed during the past year. It doesn’t matter whether that represents more than the previous year: what really matters is why.

On a national level, we need to see self-harm as representative of a generation of young people collectively trying to communicate their distress. In particular, the government needs to start listening to young people’s concerns about the amount of academic pressure they feel at school, their worries about future prospects, the environment and the rising levels of intolerance that make their world a more difficult place to inhabit. 

Self-harm is about more than stigma and social media

Prime minister Theresa May needs to stop behaving like a campaigner, talking vaguely about “stigma” and the need to “speak out”, and realise why services are in desperate need of funding that only her government can provide. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt needs to stop blaming everything on social media and realise that the pressures facing young people extend far beyond the world contained in their handheld devices. 

The Department for Education (DfE) needs to stop asking teachers to become makeshift therapists and join the call to properly fund services that support pupils with poor mental health. In 2015, 28 per cent of children referred to Children and adult mental health services were not allocated a service.

An investigation by the former shadow minister for mental health, Luciana Berger, revealed that only half of local authorities increased their spending on services in real terms. This was due to the government’s refusal to ring-fence the (fairly paltry) £1.4 billion promised to them for mental health services between 2015 and 2020. The average local authority spends only 1 per cent of its total health budget on mental health, despite issues relating to mental health now accounting for one in three GP visits. 

Charity campaigns and royal interventions have empowered the population to identify and speak about their mental health issues; now they need appropriate support. 

For too long, the powers-that-be have responded with empty rhetoric and it’s been to the detriment of pupils and teachers alike. The education sector needs a unified voice on this. Rather than churlishly denying there is a problem in service to some imagined traditional versus progressive ideological divide, we should all demand action.

Natasha Devon is the former government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE

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Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK.

Find me on Twitter @_natashadevon

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