Why are more and more pupils self-harming?

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Exams, social media and a faster pace of life are contributing to a rise in self-harm. What can we do, asks Dr Tara Porter in the TES.

study published in The Lancet recently outlines again an epidemic of self-harm among this generation of teenage girls. Around 20-25 per cent of 16- to 24-year-old girls have tried self-harm, usually by cutting themselves. This is up from around 6 per cent who had self-harmed in 2000. 

Some of the increase in self-harm is likely to be accounted for by more accurate reporting. Previously the secrecy and stigma about mental health, and particularly about self-harm, contributed to an under-reporting of the problem. 

The teenage years are – and always have been – difficult, emotional times. But this generation is experiencing its teenage years in a perfect, toxic storm of psychological and social factors, which act to intensify and amplify their worries and distress:

1. A 24/7 online world creates information and stimulation overload. While it is difficult to measure objectively, it seems that young people are subject to more ideas, more images, more objects and more people than ever before, and, as a result, have hyper alert brains, which receive less sleep

2. The pace of life is faster, giving young people less time to process more information. 

3. Increased sense of comparison and competition. This visually orientated, global consumer society seems to have created a constant striving for improvement – if not perfection – in bodies, minds and possessions. 

Increased academic and career demands on young people. School accountability for outcomes has morphed into school scrutiny, with children prepped and primed to pass Sats and GCSEs. 

What schools can do to help:

1. In my view, schools need a two-pronged approach. Firstly, schools need to think about reducing the stress their young people are under. Secondly, they need to give young people more positive coping methods when they are stressed. These two messages are strongly interrelated. 

2. Schools should be mindful of the levels of stress their pupils are experiencing. Children need a balanced approach to their school work, which also encourages stopping work and having some fun, too. 

3. Finally, schools should watch out for an “outbreak” of mental illness or self-harm among their pupils, and think carefully about the impact of one young person’s distress on the surrounding group. Sometimes, their friends may need to be “given permission” to think about how they protect themselves in their friendship group, while still supporting the person who is unwell. 

This is complicated stuff, and a good school counsellor or pastoral lead will be able to help. 

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