More must be done to help young people, researchers warn.
More and more people in England are turning to self-harm to relieve emotional distress, a new study suggests, with rates rising dramatically among young women aged 16-24 years old.
Research published in The Lancet Psychiatry found 2% of the population self-harmed in the year 2000, rising to 6% in 2014. Between 2000 and 2007, the prevalence of self-harm was similar among men and women, but in 2014 the gap widened with 7.9% of women and girls impacted, compared to 5% of men and boys.
Prevalence increased in several groups but most notably girls and young women – in 2014, almost one in five (19.7%) 16-24 year-olds reported non-suicidal self-harm (defined as self-inflicted harm without suicidal intent), compared with 6.5% in 2000, and 11.7% in 2007.
The statistics echo previous findings from charity Addaction which found one in five teenage girls think about self-harming some or all of the time.
Mental health charity Young Minds branded the findings “alarming” and called on the government to improve access to early intervention support within communities.
Self-harm – where someone intentionally injures their body – can have lifelong implications, researchers warned, especially if behaviours are adopted as long-term coping mechanisms for dealing with emotional stress.
This new study is the first to establish trends in the prevalence of non-suicidal self-harm (NSSH) across England. Historically, studies reported a rise in the number of people presenting to hospital emergency departments after self-harming, however it was not known whether the rise reflected an increase in the prevalence of self-harm more widely.
Researchers analysed data from people aged 16-74 years old in the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Surveys, looking at the mental health of people in England.
The study analysed 7,243 people in England in 2000, 6,444 people in 2007, and 6,477 people in 2014. Overall, the lifetime prevalence of non-suicidal self-harm (NSSH) rose from 2.4% in 2000, to 3.8% in 2007 and to 6.4% in 2014.
Questions included whether participants had deliberately harmed themselves in any way without suicidal intent, how and why they had harmed themselves, and whether they had received subsequent medical attention and/or psychological support. It also took into account factors such as participants’ ethnicity, home ownership, whether they were in debt, their education and household income.
In each wave of the survey, NSSH was most prevalent in the youngest age groups and least prevalent in the oldest age groups, and did not differ significantly between ethnic groups.
“Non-suicidal self-harm is increasingly being reported as a way of coping,” said Sally McManus, the study’s lead author from the National Centre for Social Research. “We need to help people, especially young people, learn more appropriate and effective ways of dealing with emotional stress.”
Despite increases in self-harm, the study found no evidence of an uptake in treatment – the proportion of people reporting no subsequent contact with medical or psychological services after self-harming remained relatively stable between 2000, 2007 and 2014 (51.2%, 51.8%, and 59.4%, respectively).
Women and girls who had self-harmed were more likely than men and boys to have contact with medical or psychological services, as were older people aged 35-74 years old compared to those aged 16-34 years old.
The availability of services needs to be improved, especially for young people, said McManus – and Emma Thomas, chief executive of YoungMinds, agreed. She told HuffPost UK the rise in rates of self-harm, particularly among girls and young women, was “alarming” and condemned the current system, saying “it’s far too difficult for children and young people to get mental health support before they reach crisis point”.
“The government has promised extra investment, which must make a real difference to front line services – but we also need to see action so young people can get early support in their communities,” Thomas added.
Why Is Self-Harm On The Rise?
Thomas said the reasons behind self-harm can be complex, however research by the charity shows young people face a wide range of pressures which can impact on mental health.
“Difficult experiences in childhood, like growing up in poverty or experiencing abuse or neglect, can have a huge impact on mental health,” she said, “but there are also new pressures that have emerged in recent years.”
She cited an education system that places a greater emphasis on exam results, and the rise of social media which “can make problems like bullying or body image issues more intense than they were in the past”.
Professor Louis Appleby, the study’s co-author, from University of Manchester, said there is a risk that self-harm will “become normalised” for young people, and individuals who start to self-harm when young might adopt the behaviour as a long-term coping strategy…