There has been an alarming and rapid rise in the number of girls self-harming in the UK.
Between 2011 and 2014, experts have found that reports of self-harm among British girls aged between 13 and 16 rose by 68%. Despite the concerning spike, in about 55% of cases of self-harm, no referral to mental health services was documented.
Experts from the University of Manchester gathered data from 674 general practices across the UK on the number of children and adolescents aged 10 to 19 years who had self-harmed.
The study, published in The British Medical Journal, found that between 2001 and 2014, 16,912 children and adolescents were identified as having self-harmed at least once.
Of these, almost three quarters (73%) were girls.
For girls, the rate of self-harm was 37.4 out of every 10,000 girls, compared to 12.3 per 10,000 boys.
For girls aged 13 to 16 the rate rose from 45.9 per 10,000 in 2011 to 77.0 per 10,000 in 2014.
They found that children living in the poorest areas were 23% less likely to be referred in the year after their self-harm episode when compared with youngsters in the least deprived regions.
The authors also assessed risk of death by comparing 8,638 youngsters who had self-harmed to 170,274 children who had not.
A total of 43 deaths occurred among young people in the self-harm cohort and 176 in the comparison group.
Those who had self-harmed were nine times more likely to die unnaturally – including suicide and accidental death – compared to their peers, they calculated.
They were also 17 times more likely to die by suicide.
Researchers said that reasons behind the increase were speculative but added: ‘Some evidence indicates that common mental disorders are becoming more common among this age group – perhaps a reflection that today’s early adolescents are living in more stressful times.’
They added: ‘Exposure to digital media and its potential impact on children and adolescents’ mental health is the centre of continued media debate.
‘Such technologies can be helpful and facilitate access to care but there is also a suggestion that extreme ‘connectedness’ could have detrimental effects.’
The authors said that referral rates to psychiatric services were ‘low’ which suggests ‘less severe cases or possible reflection of the challenges in accessing specialist services in a timely manner’.
Nav Kapur, professor of psychiatry and population health at the University of Manchester, said: ‘Though the higher rates of self-harm in girls than boys and a strong link with the risk of later suicide has confirmed previous work, perhaps our most striking finding was the apparent rapid increase in self-harm recorded for girls aged 13-16.
‘We can’t really explain this possible rapid increase in self-harm among girls. It could reflect better awareness or recording of self-harm in primary care. ‘But it could also be a result of increasing stress and higher levels of psychological problems in young people.
‘There is some evidence indicating that common mental health disorders are becoming more common within this age group.
The internet and social media can be really helpful in preventing self-harm but could have negative effects too and this is a focus of significant research and activity.’ He added: ‘These results do emphasise the opportunity for earlier intervention in primary care to reduce suicide risk.’
The researchers, led by Dr Cathy Morgan, said that self-harm was the biggest risk factor for future suicide – which is globally the second most common cause of death for 10 to 24-year-olds behind road accidents.
An NSPCC spokesman said: ‘These heartbreaking figures are sadly unsurprising because Childline hears from so many young people who hurt themselves. ‘Last year we held more than 15,000 counselling sessions about self-harm, and many young people who talked about suicidal feelings also mentioned self-harm.
‘Self-harm can often be an expression of a deeper problem which is why early intervention services to support these children are vital.
‘Without this, the consequences really can be a matter of life or death.’