Saturday’s Times featured the headline "Schools buckle under 70,000 self-harm cases". The article went on to detail how, owing to inconsistencies in the way self-harm is recorded and dealt with across different schools, this figure probably only gave a small indication of the true scale of the problem. Surveying 28 schools that had been able to provide six years' worth of data, the Times found that teachers blamed social media as one of the largest contributors to self-harming behaviours.
Anecdotally, I’d say that self-harm is one of the fastest growing mental health issues in young people. However, I do not think if the Times’ survey had asked pupils themselves, rather than their teachers, that the top answer for why they were self-harming would have been the internet.
There can be little doubt that social media, pro-self-harm websites and well-meaning but poorly constructed online awareness-raising initiatives are teaching young people how to self-harm. My campaign, the Mental Health Media Charter, which looks at how media reporting on mental ill health can best ensure that it is safe and genuinely educational, and avoid perpetuating unhelpful stereotypes, has received countless emails from young people who tell us that they learned about self-harming behaviours through the internet. However, what all their stories also have in common is that there was a pre-existing reason why their psychological wellbeing had been negatively affected. They were, whether consciously or not, actively looking for ways to manifest distress. They could not, they told me in a small online focus group I ran over the weekend, have been induced to self-harming behaviours if they were perfectly happy and content.
Satveer Nijjar, who has worked with the Royal College of Psychiatrists on self-harm and now runs training for educators, told me when I interviewed her for my book A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental “…a person is trying to communicate with you when they self-harm. And, despite what people think, it is always a symptom of some kind of distress”.
Perhaps then, it is more accurate to say that, whilst social media might technically be responsible for growing numbers of children self-harming, it is not the reason why. Perhaps if self-harm didn’t exist, those young people would find another way of communicating their anxiety. This certainly tallies up with the fact that when I first started going into schools 10 years ago, the biggest call was for me to talk about eating disorders, but now self-harm is often described as the current "trend" by teachers. The method of expression might be different, but that cannot tell us necessarily what the underlying reasons are.
'Self-harm is a coping mechanism'
According to Mental Health First Aid England, when helping someone who is self-harming, your goal should never be simply to stop the self-harming behaviour. This is because often self-harm is a coping mechanism and to take that away without addressing the underlying causes can increase the person’s risk of suicide. Essentially, that individual is still full of uncomfortable and painful feelings but has no means of expressing them. Indeed, Satveer, who self-harmed as a result of growing up against a background of domestic abuse, said that for her "it was about staying alive", the only way she could cope.
Self-harming behaviours are highly addictive. Addiction expert Shahroo Izadi’s hotly anticipated book The Kindness Method is out this week and in it she argues that to address negative habits, we should stop focussing on our behaviours and instead consider why we do them. If we work on making ourselves happier and more balanced, Shahroo says, the toxic coping mechanisms will naturally melt away.
In that spirit, below and in no particular order are 13 reasons why I believe young people are feeling greater levels of anxiety and emotional distress that might, in turn, lead them to self-harm. If the government and society more generally are able to combat these, we have a real chance of reducing mental ill health amongst young people:
1. Academic pressure as a result of a significantly narrowed but more demanding curriculum.
2. Exam stress and an increased culture of testing.
3. Worries about future prospects, employability and/or student debt.
4. Worries about world issues and current affairs – e.g., trigger-happy world leaders, global warming.
6. Parents working longer hours, and reduced family time.
7. Peer pressure and worries about not fitting in.
8. Appearance-based bullying.
9. Heteronormative and cisnormative assumption leading to worries about sexuality and gender.
10. Racism and the way racist attitudes have been legitimised post-Brexit.
11. Lack of access to sport and exercise.
12. Lack of access to arts and music.
13. Lack of mandatory PSHE, meaning little access to reliable information on mental health.
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. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here.
Natasha has teamed up with Bauer Media and Mental Health First Aid England to campaign for the government to change the Health and Safety at Work Act to introduce parity in protecting the mental and physical health of British workers. To find out more and sign the petition visit www.wheresyourheadat.org