Self-harm 'motivated primarily by bullying'
- 27 February 2014
- From the section Education & Family
A large survey looking into why young people self-harm has revealed that being bullied is the main reason they first injure themselves.
The online poll, carried out by four self-harm support groups, also found most youngsters were feeling alone when they first self-harmed.
Nearly 4,000 under-25s who have self-harmed responded to the survey.
Experts say the changing nature of childhood is increasing the likelihood of people self-harming.
The survey was carried out online by Self-harm.co.uk, ChildLine, Youth Net and Young Minds.
Rachel Welch, from Self-harm.co.uk, said the findings offered a useful insight into the problem.
"Self-harm is an expression of how someone is feeling, it's not the problem itself, an expression of a very difficult emotional distress.
"We've got into the habit of focusing on what young people are doing, cutting or burning, and we're forgetting it's the underlying issue we need to be digging into."
Bullying is nothing new of course, but what is new is that it now does not necessarily stop at the doorstep, added Ms Welch.
"They can't escape to their bedrooms away from bullying, because with smartphones and tablets they're never actually on their own."
Sixteen-year-old Chloe can relate to the findings. After years of being bullied, she started self-harming when she was 14.
"You just get to a point where you need to do something about it, and its just a way of venting your frustration. I was thinking, 'If you can hurt me on the inside, why can't I hurt myself on the outside?'
"It was replacing emotional pain with physical pain."
Chloe was self-harming for about 18 months, up to seven days a week.
"Pretty much whenever I had a really bad day at school, which was most days, I'd think I need to vent my frustrations.
"I'd come home, go straight to my room and I'd just stay in my room all night, I wouldn't want to associate with people."
Chloe is now receiving help from the charity Harmless.
The rise in the number of charities that support people who self-harm has prompted debate as to whether there is a genuine rise in the problem or whether the public is more aware of it.
Dr Alys Cole-King, who speaks on the issue for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, is in no doubt that the problem is on the rise.
"Research has shown that self-harm has increased recently, that in particular self-cutting has increased and we know from research that there is some contagion effect from that."
The research she refers to includes figures from the NHS in England which show that 11% more young people were admitted to hospital having self-harmed in 2012 than in the previous year.
But Prof Nav Kapur from Manchester University is keen to emphasise that there is "no epidemic".
"The long-term trends are actually down but in recent years, the rates in young men have increased. It seems likely it might be related to the wider economic conditions."
What is happening in the UK is happening in other developed parts of the world too, where the pressures on children to look a certain way and to perform academically are changing the nature of adolescence.
Where the UK is different is that more black and Asian teenage girls self-harm here than in other countries. A cultural reluctance to talk through their problems explains the difference, say experts.
Having the courage to seek help is the first step in dealing with the problem.
Chloe, who has been receiving counselling for more than a year now, says it has changed her whole outlook on life.
"There's always a light at the end of the tunnel. A lot of the time I couldn't see it and I was like, this is never going to end. But it does. All you need to do is get the right help."
With the right support, most people who self-harm can be helped to deal with the underlying problems that cause them to injure themselves.
However, inappropriate care - and research suggests even hospitals are still guilty of that - can have long-term consequences.
Studies show that people who self-harm and are admitted to hospital are up to 100 times more likely to kill themselves than the general population.