Why are our children hurting so much?
The self-harm figures are shocking – discovering your child is among them is even more so, finds Guy Kelly
Five years ago, Clare Turton received a phone call that figures in every parent’s nightmares. A single mother, she had just returned to full-time employment in an NHS hospital near her home in Nottingham, after working part-time for years while her children were in primary school.
Thanks to regular 12-hour shifts, a normal day saw Clare leave the house before Bethany, then 14, got up for school – and return after she and her younger brother got home.
The “ships in the night” arrangement wasn’t ideal, she says, but it was fine: Bethany had her head in a book, or a pencil in hand, and was happy in her room on her own. Besides, she was a teenager – not talking to her mother was normal.
One day when Turton was driving home from work, however, Bethany’s school called. “I had already been speaking to them about a bullying problem she had been suffering,” Turton, 43, says. “They told me she’d had a fight in the classroom and in dragging her out, they’d touched her arm and she’d winced. They asked
‘I thought, is it my fault? How can I not have seen the scars?’
her to pull up her sleeves and there were self-harming scars all over them.”
Turton was overwhelmed with shock – and guilt. “I thought, is it my fault? Have I been missing the signs? How can I not have seen the scars?” And, most urgently: “What do I do?”
It is a question an increasing number of parents are being forced to ask. This week, a Children’s Society report suggested that more than a fifth of 14-year-old girls – and almost one in 10 boys – in the UK have self-harmed.
The data was collected in the 2015 Millennium Cohort Study, a continuing research project following 19,000 children born in the UK between 2000 and 2001. Of those, more than 11,000 were asked whether they had hurt themselves on purpose in the last year. Out of 5,624 girls who responded, 1,237 said they had.
It is an issue that the Lib Dem peer, Baroness Walmsley, called an “epidemic” in the House of Lords last November, following a University of Manchester study that noted a 68per cent rise in the number of teenage girls treated for self-harm injuries over the previous three years.
Though not part of the survey, Bethany fits into the precise age bracket being followed. Turton went home and “just held her, and sobbed, telling her we will deal with it together”. It later transpired that she’d been hiding the signs for over a year.
“I was so dumbfounded that I hadn’t known, or seen her arms in that entire time. She always wore long sleeves, even under a T-shirt, but that was just her style. Teenagers can get amazingly creative and crafty at hiding things.”
Turton discovered Bethany had been harming herself as a means of coping with the attacks from bullies, which occurred in person throughout the day and continued – in an even more vicious fashion, including demands she take her own life – on social media once she got home. As with many teenagers, self-harm was appealing because it was a pain she could control. Worryingly, however, the University of Manchester study found a history of self-harm to be the strongest risk factor for subsequent suicide. “There is no one reason why young people are doing this, and there are many, many ways of self-harming, far beyond just cutting,” says Dr Nihara Krause, a clinical psychologist with almost 25 years’ experience in teenage and adult mental health. Through her charity stem4, she has created Calm Harm, an app that takes victims through a self-help guide whenever they feel the urge to hurt themselves. So far, it has been downloaded more than 800,000 times around the world. “I have a lot of sympathy for parents and teachers, because children are complex and modify their emotional responses a lot, but young people are under a lot of pressure,” she says.
The headlines tend to be grabbed by girls, but boys aren’t immune – just harder to diagnose, thanks both to their nature (stereotypically, even less talkative) and their methods. “They can also be harming themselves through acts of physical aggression,” Dr Krause says. “We think of burns, cuts, slow-inflicted wounds as self-harm, but so is drinking, drugs, punching a wall or getting into fights.” Though the escalation in these figures is striking, Krause is not keen to describe them as an “epidemic”
– for the sake of suggestible young people, not just semantics. “We need to be aware of not encouraging young people to try things out. If you say there are a certain number of people in each class self-harming, they might wonder if they should be doing it.” Turton went first to Bethany’s GP and teachers, and then the NHS’S child and adolescent mental health service. “There was a four-month waiting list for a one-to-one session every month where Bethany could talk. It gave her insight in how to help herself, but like any NHS service, it was overstretched.”
Turton cut down her hours and arranged for friends and family to be there when she couldn’t be, but Bethany only managed to completely stop self-harming last year, with the help of the charity Harmless – who also helped in her diagnosis with highfunctioning Asperger’s syndrome – just as she finished her A-levels. Turton says the 18-year-old now “has the spark back in her eyes”, and is preparing to go to university to study fine arts. She never did drop the sketching pencil. “We fought through it. Every day was a new day and I never, ever got angry. That would be my advice,” Turton says. “You can’t punish them, but have to show them it’s OK to ask for help, OK to fail and that the only way is to talk.”
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