In Depth

Why self-harm among teenage girls has doubled in two decades

Social media and growing academic pressures among reasons cited for ‘heartbreaking’ rise in hospital admissions

Hospital admissions for self-harming has almost doubled among teenage girls in the UK over the past 20 years, newly released figures show.

A total 7,327 such incidents were reported in 1997, compared with 13,463 times in 2017. Meanwhile, the number of admissions of boys for self-harm rose by just 5%, from 2,236 to 2,332, reports The Times.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) called for greater support for young people following the release of the NHS figures - published by ministers in response to a parliamentary question.

A spokesperson for the charity said: “These heartbreaking figures are sadly unsurprising. We know from contacts to Childline that many children are being driven to self-harm as a way of dealing with the pressures and demands of modern-day life. Young people are crying out for help and more needs to be done to prevent them from reaching crisis point.”

Jon Goldin, vice-chair of the Child and Adolescent Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that social media was likely to have contributed to the rise.

“I think there are a range of factors putting pressure on young children - academic pressures, exam pressures, social media... with fear of missing out and comparing yourself unfavourably to images you see online,” Goldin told The Times.

Asked why the risk of self-harming appears to be so much greater among girls than boys, he said: “If you look at social media, my hunch is that girls are probably more sensitive to some of those factors.”

Emma Thomas, chief executive of YoungMinds, agrees that along with poverty, abuse and neglect, new causes of mental health problems in young people have emerged in recent years.

“The education system now places a greater emphasis than ever on exam results, while the rise of social media can make problems like bullying or body image issues more intense than they were in the past,” she told the newspaper.

Previous research has suggested that “a growing number of young women are experiencing mental health problems, with contributing factors including worries about appearance”, says The Guardian.

A study published in the British Medical Journal in October found that self-harm was three times as common among girls aged between ten and 19 than among boys in the same age group. The researchers also found that children who self-harmed were at much greater risk of suicide than those who did not.

“One of the big messages here is that self-harm is complex – it is about schools, it is about families, it is about health professionals [and] teachers all working together trying to tackle the problem,” said study co-author Nav Kapur, professor of psychiatry and population health at the University of Manchester.

The Department of Health and Social Care said that the newly released NHS figures did not represent the number of patients treated, because some were admitted to hospital more than once, but added that the Government was allocating more funding to tackle the problem.

A spokesperson added: “Making sure children and young people have the right mental health care when they need it is vital. That’s why we are investing an extra £300m to provide more help in schools, which will include trained staff to provide faster support to children.”

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