Research shows self-harm is on the rise in teenage girls

Research shows self-harm is on the rise in teenage girls

Being a teenager can be miserable. It's a time when hormones are constantly in flux, where relationships are of paramount importance and one's burgeoning sexuality and body image leads to self-esteem issues and deep insecurity. Add the intense pressures of a high school environment, the stress of exams and college applications, and it's frankly no surprise that so many teenagers will be diagnosed with mental health issues. Many will also develop addictions during this time, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and some will attempt to hurt themselves.

There is a profound difference in modern society between the stereotype of teenage angst, usually characterised as a form of affected melancholy, and serious mental health problems. Teenagers are expected to be moody; and yet when they express the seriousness of their depression, many adults are content to brush them off flippantly. We're only beginning to comprehend the true scope of the problem. Furthermore, new evidence suggests that self-harm among teenage girls is on the rise.

It's important to first explain the symptoms characterising self-harm. Put simply, self-harm is a compulsive mode of behaviour in which the sufferer injures their own body in order to externalise internal anguish or distress. Typical self-harm involves the use of sharp objects to cut the skin, but can also involve burning, scratching, electrocution, hitting, hair-pulling or the consumption of toxic substances.

Self-harm is distinguished from masochism in that there is no sexual element to the violence, although self-harmers often experience an intense and euphoric sensation of relief. Self-harm is often a manifestation of extreme body dysmorphia or self loathing, sometimes provoked by severe trauma such as emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Approximately three million cases of self-harm were officially recorded in 2013, typically in vulnerable young people. Those between the ages of 12 and 24 are most susceptible to self-harm, although it can occur at any age. In recent years, many different movements have been founded in order to spread awareness and encourage sensitivity regarding self-harm. On Self-injury Awareness Day (SIAD) people are encouraged to wear an orange ribbon or wristband in support. Yet despite this laudable campaigning, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Manchester has revealed that more teenage girls are self-harming than ever before.

The study analysed the patient records database of British GPs, examining data on approximately 17,000 patients from around 600 different medical practices. Between 2011 and 2014, the rate of self-harm among girls younger than 17 increased by 68 per cent. In addition to this, the same study determined that self-harm among young people between the ages of 10 to 19 was three times more common among girls than boys, and was far more likely in youths living in economically deprived areas.

Furthermore, NHS Digital figures for 2015 to 2016 show that cases of self-poisoning among girls have risen over the last decade, from 9,700 cases in 2005 to 2006 to 14,600 recorded cases between 2015 to 2016. In addition to this, NHS Digital stats showed that the number of girls who self-harmed badly enough to require hospitalisation quadrupled, from 600 admissions in 2005 to 2006, to 2,400 between 2015 to 2016.

Commenting on his own findings, co-author Nav Kapur, a professor of psychiatry and population health, stated: "These results do emphasise the opportunity for earlier intervention in primary care to reduce suicide risk. We know talking treatments can help. There is also a need for more integrated care involving families, schools and health and social care providers and the voluntary sector to enhance safety among these distressed young people and to help secure their future mental health and well being."

"We can’t really explain this possible rapid increase in self-harm among girls," he continues. "It could reflect better awareness or recording of self-harm in primary care. But it could also be a result of increasing stress and higher levels of psychological problems in young people. There is some evidence indicating that common mental health disorders are becoming more common within this age group. The internet and social media can be really helpful in preventing self-harm but could have negative effects too and this is a focus of significant research and activity." 

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, the chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, concurs with this assessment: "There is a growing crisis in children and young people’s mental health, and in particular a gathering crisis in mental distress and depression among girls and young women. Emotional problems in young girls have been significantly, and very worryingly, on the rise over the past few years."

Psychiatrists are also having to contend with new forms of self-harm, as well as the pressures imposed on teens through heavy social media use. Digital self-harm is one example of a new phenomenon of self-harm, which is only just beginning to be acknowledged by medical professionals. In this instance, instead of resorting to physical harm, more and more teens are taking to social media in order to invite emotional abuse from strangers upon themselves.

A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that approximately six per cent of adolescents between the ages of 12 to 17 will engage in this practice at some point.  The study took a sample of 5,593 students and surveyed them about their online behaviour. More than five per cent of females surveyed stated that they actively cyber-bullied themselves.

It's hard to say precisely why these studies have discovered such a gender disparity when it comes to self-harm but a number of different factors could be to blame for the imbalance. So what steps could be taken to prevent an increase in self-harm among minors and how can we effectively treat those who develop self-abusing compulsions?

First of all; if you are concerned that someone you know may be self-harming, then be on the lookout for recurring wounds; bruises or cuts that appear without explanation. Self-harmers are often frightened of showing skin for fear of displaying their injuries, and may wear long-sleeved clothing.

Take care not to discuss physical symptoms judgementally. It is extremely important to discuss self-harm as sensitively as possible. In some instances, self-harming is a compulsion much like OCD, and manifests itself as a method of relieving overwhelming anxiety, with pain distracting the mind from intrusive thoughts. In other instances, it's a way of punishing one's self for perceived inadequacies, in the beliefs that these injuries are justified.

What with government cuts to the health service, as well as the lengthy waiting lists for cognitive behavioural therapy, it's likely that many of those girls who are suffering will be unable to gain access to the treatment they need, which places them very much at risk. If you or anyone else you know is self-harming, or feeling depressed or suicidal, then do not hesitate to contact the Samaritans on  116 123, or visit Young Minds for help, advice and further information.