Nearly a quarter of 14-year-old girls in UK 'self-harming', charity reports

Wednesday August 29 2018

"Fifth of 14-year-old girls [actually 22%] in UK 'self-harm'", reported BBC News today.

The alarming headline is prompted by the publication of the 7th edition of the Good Childhood Report, produced by UK charity The Children's Society. This annual report aims to find out how children in the UK feel about their lives and the things that make them happy and unhappy.

Specifically, the report looks at:

  • trends in children's self-reported happiness over time, and whether this differs between genders
  • how they feel about family, friends and their appearance
  • the relationship between children's happiness and mental health, and how these may lead to behaviours such as self-harm

Generally, the UK media's coverage on the self-harm part of the report was accurate.

The report concludes with several policy recommendations. The main one is that adults should ask children themselves how they feel about their lives, rather than rely on observations and assumptions made by adults.

The report also suggests that we should consider children's general happiness, not just mental health issues, when identifying those in need of support.

What evidence did the report look at?

This latest report used findings from an ongoing research programme with 65,000 children and young people, which began in 2005.

It took answers from a questionnaire sent to children aged 10-17, in which they were asked how they felt about:

  • relationships with their family
  • their home
  • how much choice they have in life
  • relationships with their friends
  • money and things they own
  • their health
  • the way they look
  • their future
  • their school
  • the way they use their time

The researchers also considered data from the following 3 ongoing studies.

The British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and Understanding Society study, which began in 1994, looks at long-term trends in how young people say they feel.

The Millennium Cohort Study, which began in 2001, tracks a range of physical and mental health factors. The researchers took data from the sixth wave of the study, when children were around 14 years old.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) 'Measuring National Well-being' looks at how children feel about a variety of things, such as how satisfied they feel with their life, whether they were happy yesterday, and whether they feel life is worthwhile.

What were the main findings?

General happiness

Over the period from 1995 to 2016, children's happiness with family, schoolwork and school was shown to increase. However, for friends and life as a whole, an increase between 1995 and 2009 was followed by a decrease in happiness between 2009 and 2016.

The researchers suggest that these trends are unlikely to be linked to a particular political or cultural effect (such as the 2008 recession). But the findings might tell us we need to offer extra support to children at this later life stage.

Differences between genders

There has been a growing difference between boys and girls in terms of happiness between 2009 and 2016. Girls' happiness relating to their physical appearance and life as a whole has decreased over time.

The researchers suggest that social media and the internet have more of a negative effect on girls than boys.

The researchers found that time spent with friends was slightly more important for boys than girls, while relationships with family and comments relating to appearance had more of an impact on happiness for girls.

Analysis also showed that children are aware of gender stereotypes, which had an impact on the happiness of both boys and girls.

And children aged 14 who were attracted to the same or both genders said they were significantly less happy and were more likely to have depressive symptoms than children attracted to the opposite gender.

Depression

There was a strong link between general happiness with life and depression. About 47% of children who reported low happiness in life had depressive symptoms. Girls were generally found to be less happy and have more depressive symptoms than boys.

Self-harming

Girls (22%) were more than twice as likely as boys (9%) to self-harm. Rates of self-harm were also higher in children who were attracted to the same gender or to both genders (46%), and in children from lower-income households.

It's worth mentioning that the report used the term "self-harming" to describe a wide range of behaviours, including drug and alcohol abuse, as well as physical self-harming.

What were the report's recommendations?

The Good Childhood Report 2018 provides several policy recommendations to help improve the lives of children across the UK.

The report has specific recommendations to be considered in schools, for children in care, and for children who face multiple challenges in life. It also highlights the need to consider the significant difference in happiness between boys and girls.

One of the main recommendations is to ask children themselves how they feel about their lives, rather than rely on observations and assumptions made by adults. Also, the report suggests we shouldn't just look for mental health issues when identifying children in need of support, but also consider their general happiness.

Getting help

It's important for anyone who self-harms to see their GP. They can treat any physical injury and recommend further assessment, if necessary.

Your GP is likely to ask you about your feelings in some detail. They'll want to establish why you self-harm, what triggers it, and how you feel afterwards.

Your GP may ask you some questions to see if you have an underlying condition, such as depressionanxiety or borderline personality disorder.

If the way you self-harm follows a particular pattern of behaviour, such as an eating disorder, you may be asked additional questions about this.

Your height, weight and blood pressure may also be checked, and you may be asked about any drinking or drug-taking habits.

It's important to be honest with your GP about your symptoms and your feelings. If you don't know why you self-harm, tell your GP this.

Helping others

If you're concerned that a child you care for may be self-harming, make an appointment with them to see your GP.

If necessary they can refer your child to their local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) for specialist help.

Find out more information about CAMHS.

If you are worried about any aspect of your child's mental health, you can call the free parents' helpline run by the charity YoungMinds on 0808 802 5544 for advice.

The YoungMinds website also has mental health support and advice for your child.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website