The British Children’s Society published a shocking report that reveals one in four 14-year-old girls in the UK have self-harmed.
The report estimates that 110,000 children aged 14 in the UK may be self-harming, 76,000 of them girls. Gender stereotypes and worries about physical appearances are discussed as some of the main causes.
These figures show the scale of the mental health crisis affecting young people.
The charity analysed figures from the millennium cohort survey, carried out by researchers from University College London, which follows children born in the UK in 2000-01.
The report also included a survey of children aged 10-17 and their parents across 2,000 households, which found that the issues of most concern to children were school and their appearance.
Nearly a quarter (24%) said they heard jokes or comments about other people’s bodies or looks all the time, while more than a fifth (22%) of those in secondary school said jokes or comments were often made about people’s sexual activity. Both made girls feel much worse about their appearance and less happy with their life as a whole, but this pattern did not apply to boys.
The mental health campaigner Natasha Devon, who works with young people in schools, said that while the self-harm figures were upsetting they were 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 … most people say they started doing it as it felt good,” she said. “They did it in response to not feeling heard or not being able to articulate what was wrong. Over time it is addictive.”
Devon said that 14 was the average age at which most mental health difficulties can start. “There is a spike in [the brain chemical] dopamine [at that age] which makes people more prone to risk-taking and there are a lot of hormones. It’s a crucial stage in a young person’s neurological development.”
Devon put some of the blame on austerity.
“The world is just a more difficult place to navigate,” she said. “You can see a sharp rise in mental health conditions such as anxiety and self-harm since 2010 and that is when austerity began.”
She also blamed a greater emphasis on tests in education. “We lost things such as … sport, art and music in school. It’s interesting that there is a higher prevalence [of self-harm] among girls. It is to do with the ways girls and boys are socialised – girls are taught anger is unacceptable and boys are taught showing distress is unacceptable.”