Shock figures show extent of self-harm in English teenagers

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There has been a threefold increase in the number of teenagers who self-harm in England in the last decade, according to a World Health Organisation collaborative study.

The Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) report, due to be published in the autumn, will reveal that of the 6,000 young people aged 11, 13 and 15 surveyed across England – up to one in five 15-year-olds say they self-harm.

There is no comparative data from other countries as England is the first country to ask this question on self-harm since the global study, which is conducted every four years, began in 1983. The decision to include it follows a rise in anecdotal evidence from teachers in secondary schools across the country.

The last comprehensive study of self-harm in England was published by the British Medical Journal in 2002. It surveyed around 6,000 15- and 16-year-olds in 41 schools and found that 6.9% of them said they had self-harmed over the past year. This compares with the 2013-14 WHO study, which puts the figure at 20% of 15-year-olds.

Self-harm includes actions such as cutting, burning and biting oneself. Professor Fiona Brooks, head of adolescent and child health at the University of Hertfordshire, is the global study’s principal investigator for England. She says: “Our findings are really worrying, and it’s [self-harm] considerably worse among girls. At age 11, both girls and boys report a good level of emotional wellbeing. But by the age of 15, the gap has widened and we get 45% of adolescent girls saying they feel low once a week compared with 23% of boys.”

She warns of a ticking timebomb unless the rise in poor mental health among young people is addressed. “We don’t yet know enough about why this [poor mental health] is but parents are busy and stressed, and children’s lives are becoming more pressurised. They know they need better grades to get to university, but there’s no guarantee of a job at the end of it all.”

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