Social media and the pressures of school work are blamed for a rise in self-harm in girls—but are we ignoring one of the biggest contributing factors: poverty?by Sian Norris / August 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
Earlier this week, the NHS revealed a worrying rise in reports of self-harm among teenage girls in the UK.
Using a reliable national database that tracked trends in reports of self-harm from 2001, they discovered a 68 per cent rise in rates of self-harm in 13-16 year old girls since 2011.
The NHS explained how the database didn’t reveal the causes behind this rise, and stated:
“It could be due to greater awareness of the help available, more teenagers are willing to report self-harming. But we cannot ignore the possibility that many cases of self-harm may go unreported.”
Following the NHS’s study, charities have warned that social media use and the pressure of school work is fuelling this rise—although they correctly state that self-harm cannot be attributed to one single cause.
The link with poverty
However, there is one contributing factor to rates of self-harm in young people that rarely gets acknowledged: poverty and deprivation.
According to a BMJ study published in 2017, “among children and adolescents registered with practices in the most deprived areas, the annual incidence [of self harm] per 10 000 was increased … compared with those consulting practices in the least deprived areas.”
At the same time, those living in deprived communities are less likely to be referred to specialist mental health services—even though incidences of self-harm is higher in these poorer populations.
We must be very careful not to attribute one single cause for self-harm. But that we are reluctant to talk about the risk factor of higher rates of poverty and deprivation alongside increased incidences of self-harm is telling.
How the narrative dismisses young women
It’s a lot easier to blame social media and schoolwork on the frightening and devastating rise in self-harm in young women than it is to blame poverty.
Firstly, because it’s easier to dismiss. From telling girls to simply get off Instagram or Snapchat, to opining on how exams were harder “in my day,” there’s an ugly narrative at play that if young people today aren’t coping then it is somehow their fault.
Secondly, our media narrative has positioned young people in one role: they are the “snowflake generation” or “moaning millennials” (even though teenagers aren’t millennials).
In this narrative of privilege, young women living in poverty are invisible and easily ignored.
Why austerity has an impact
Finally, and most importantly, it is much easier for the government to blame social media companies and schoolwork than it is to admit the devastating impact of austerity on mental health.
After eight years of austerity, we’ve seen the biggest rise in poverty since Thatcher was in power, and child poverty has risen by 3 per cent in the last year. That could be just the tip of the iceberg. The Resolution Foundation believes that rises in child poverty have been underestimated by the government since 2010.
More and more young people are living in deprivation, and more and more young people are struggling with mental health. Again, the causes of self-harm are complicated, and we can’t fall into the trap of blaming one single factor.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore how incidences of self-harm are higher for girls living in deprived areas, at a time when poverty is on the increase.
The government “are investing an extra £300m to provide more help in schools, which will include trained staff to provide faster support to children,” with more announcements on how to improve mental health to come later in the year.
We need to do more to help
This is good news—we need more investment in tackling self-harm, and we need more trained staff in schools who can support young people when they’re struggling.
But this investment isn’t going to undo the impact of austerity on deprived communities, and the mental toll the cuts and related poverty have inflicted on young people.
Meanwhile, this investment is coming after swingeing cuts to mental health care for young people. These cuts mean girls struggling with self-harm are forced to wait before accessing to life-saving support.
There also is some evidence for a correlation between rates of self-harm in young women and incidences of sexual assault and abuse.
Government cuts to support services for survivors of sexual violence means that survivors seeking help have fewer places to turn—and potentially turn in on themselves. One American study found that 79 per cent of individuals who self-harm reported childhood sexual abuse, although other studies claim the link is relatively small.
Girls matter, too
In recent years, we have seen much-needed attention being paid to the crisis in mental health facing young men. This is absolutely right and we must make every effort to highlight the frightening rates of male suicide and act faster to combat it.
But at the same time, we have paid little attention to girls’ mental health crisis—and particularly girls living in deprived areas. Suicide is the biggest killer of young women as well as young men. Self-harm is a strong risk factor for suicide—as is poverty.
It’s time we started talking about rising deprivation as a contributing factor to self-harm in young women. We cannot continue to pin the blame on social media and school, without also looking at poverty and its impact on young women’s mental health.
This week’s report needs to be a wake-up call: one that demands investment in ending poverty and deprivation, while at the same time improving support services for young people wherever they live.