Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Growing pressure on young leaves innocent lives scarred

Young people face a stressful future

Young people face a stressful future

It’s a long time since children were meant to be seen and not heard, so why, asks Sarah Freeman are thousands of youngsters being driven to self-harm?

LISA began self-harming shortly after her 13th birthday. Her parents were going through a bitter divorce and, amid the rows, the teenager began to fall behind at school.

Becoming withdrawn, her friends gradually began to drift off in other directions and feeling unable to turn to anyone for help she found a pen-knife in the back of a kitchen drawer and began to cut herself.

After the first time she promised herself that she would never do it again, but within a few months she was cutting herself every day.

“I just couldn’t stop,” she says. “One day my mum saw the scars on my arms and she went completely mad, but that only made things worse. I felt I couldn’t cope with life and self-harming seemed the only thing I had any control over.

“I know it seems a strange thing to say, but when I was doing it the pain I felt the rest of the time went away. I’d always looked forward to going to school, but when problems began at home I just couldn’t concentrate.

“I wasn’t sleeping well and that started to affect my studies. Looking back I think I was embarrassed that I wasn’t coping. I didn’t feel I could talk to anyone about what was making me so unhappy, because I didn’t know myself.”

Lisa did eventually confide in a relative and through counselling has learned to manage the urge to self-harm. However, she is not alone. According to figures released by YoungMinds, by 2020, 100,000 youngsters could be hospitalised each year because of self-harm.

The mental health charity, which has a specific focus on the young, says that over the last 10 years inpatient admissions due to self-harm have increased by 68 per cent. The picture is particularly bleak for females, with admissions for women and girls under the age of 25 soaring by 77 per cent in the last 10 years.

“These shocking statistics should act as a wake-up call to everyone who cares about the welfare of young people,” says Lucie Russell, director of campaigns, policy and participation at Young Minds. “More and more children are using self-harm as a mechanism to cope with the pressures of life and this just isn’t acceptable.

“Self-harm is often dismissed as merely attention seeking behaviour, but it’s a sign that young people are feeling terrible internal pain and are not coping. “The charity believes the reason for the projected increase can in part be blamed on the worsening economic outlook. With companies cutting back and putting expansion plans on hold, young people have been hit hard in the increasingly competitive jobs market. Last month’s unemployment figures showed the number of young people not in education, employment or training has now topped the one million mark with one in five 16 to 24-year-olds in England and Wales now classed as Neets. By way of response, the Government announced the creation of a new £1bn Youth Contract fund which will subsidise the private sector for taking on young out of work employees. However, while many welcomed the news as at least a step in the right direction, the impact of the initiative on those currently claiming benefits could take a long time to be felt.

“Young people today are growing up in a harsh environment with ever increasing stress to perform at school, next to zero job prospects and the constant pressure to keep up with the latest consumer trends,” adds Ms Russell. “Social networking although creating ever greater circles of friends often leaves young people feeling even more isolated and alone. Everyone should take responsibility for the next generation if we don’t want these projected figures to become a reality, parents need the tools to give their children the necessary support, schools need to place much more emphasis on teaching emotional resilience and coping skills, alongside service which intervene early when mental health problems first arrive.

“Worrying these figures are only the tip of the iceberg as they only record hospital inpatient admissions. The true figure of how many young people and children are self harming is likely to be much higher.”

And for many it is the start of a lifelong battle with self-esteem and lack of confidence.

“I still have bad days, but I’m much better at coping with feeling down,” says Lisa, who hasn’t self-harmed for more than six months. “For me self-harming was about trying to escape from what was happening at home, but it didn’t work and now I know the only way to deal with problems is to face up to them.”