This post originally appeared in VICE UK
Self-harm hospital admissions among children are at a five-year high in the UK. The BBC reported yesterday that admissions of girls aged 10-14 had increased by nearly 93 percent—from 3,090 in 2009-2010 to 5,953 in 2013-2014—with a rise of 45 percent in boys, from 454 to 659.
Self-harm is often, clumsily, branded a "girl's" condition. Like eating disorders, it's wrapped up in old ideas about the way male mental health should manifest in men—we're not supposed to dodge our food, and we're certainly not supposed to cut ourselves. But this is a dangerous mantra, a relic from the era of the stiff-upper lip that's probably best jettisoned from Earth before it hurts anyone else. Children—especially boys—are suffering in silence because of it.
It's difficult to talk about self-harm because it's an acute expression of something deeper. It's a way of making internal pain tangible, visible. If your skin burns and bleeds as you cut it open, you'll be distracted from the wild fire in your brain—at least for a second. This is a human trait—not a feminine one. It's genderless. Ageless. Age-old.
"Self-harm is a coping mechanism," Lucie Russell, of YoungMinds, told me. "And it's very self-destructive. It's done as a personal punishment, to release the pain inside by experiencing pain on the outside. The reasons for a young person self-harming are numerous—economical issues, addiction problems, family breakdown. These all affect mental health." There's also the more modern issue of the 24/7 online framework kids move within, she says, which never lets up. It leaves you wide open to bullying—the thing thought to be a prime motivator for self-harming—from all angles.
According to the BBC, the increase in the total sufferers may also be down to better number counting. In other words, the problem might not necessarily be growing—rather, someone has finally given it undivided attention. "The last set of national data came out in 2004, from the Office of National Statistics," says Russell. "And another one will be done in 2016."
But is this enough? Does that give us enough of a handle of the number of young people who are self-harming? Russell says boys are particularly difficult to count accurately because a very small number of them actually go to the emergency room. She believes these new numbers are "the tip of the iceberg" when it comes to male self-harming.
Because of overwhelming news like this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this (you get the idea), the UK government has recently declared £30 million is being put into mental health care at Accident and Emergency units. During their Autumn Statement, they also dedicated a £100 million mental healthcare project for young people over five years.
This all sounds excellent. But there is no guarantee change is coming. With mental illness, there are no defined edges or solid ground. Even the term itself feels incorrect—an umbrella for a vast array of afflictions. You can't go into your local doctor, tick a few boxes and come out 10 minutes later with a diagnosis, a cure and a raspberry lollipop. It's multi-faceted, complex and shape-shifting, and treatment needs to reflect as such.
"With the new £30 million investment into A&E for mental health, we're not yet sure how that will be divided," Russell told me. "It's good, but we don't know precisely what it's being spent on. This needs to be about prevention and early intervention." This doesn't always happen—in November, for example, a report showed that 32 hospitals throughout Britain were treating their self-harm patients in markedly different manners.
It is sadly very easy to find horror stories in this country regarding our poor treatment of the mentally ill—and especially the young—but it's not the people working within mental health care who are to blame, or the NHS itself
A great deal of money has already been spent on mental health treatment in the past decade, but not all of it seems to go toward the most effective and humane treatments. In 2008, for example, the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies initiative gave £400 million to local commissioners to provide treatment and yet, according to the Economic and Social Research Council in 2012, this money is often spent on other NHS services, against protocol, which is questionable at best and criminal at worst.
The report makes for head-shaking reading. Richard Layard, who wrote it, noted: "When everyone praises early intervention, it is particularly shocking that the sharpest cuts today are those affecting children." What that means is that the most vulnerable people in our society are being put on scales and weighed up against budgets. It's pretty sickening.
Currently, only 13 percent of the NHS budget is spent on mental health and the Regulator Monitor recently suggested a further 20 percent cut in funding. This is fucking absurd—considering the sheer scale of the issue and the good evidence suggesting that the only reason the NHS's mental health funds cost the UK economy about £100 billion a year is because the money is being poorly spent. It's not like this is a secret—the information is out there.
Despite 50 percent of all illnesses reported by the under 65's being a mental health issue, only 25 percent of sufferers received any help whatsoever. Just think about that for a second. Every other person in a doctor's waiting room is going in because of something concerning their mental wellbeing and only a quarter of them get any help.
It is sadly very easy to find horror stories in this country regarding our poor treatment of the mentally ill, especially the young—but it's not the people working within mental health care who are to blame, of course, or the NHS itself. The "failing NHS" line is tired. Blaming the people in this country who are trying to help is like telling your grandmother off for cooking a roast. It's what they do—it's what they want to do. It's not their fault the system is broken, where nurses openly admit they get shit training and patients are left homeless.
But realities like the children in Somerset being treated in adult wards and the one in six sufferers attempting to take their own lives while waiting for treatment cannot be ignored if only for the preservation of a wildly inconsistent system that everybody knows needs a good makeover. According to MindEd, 76 percent of children below the age of 15 suffering from mental health problems do not receive any treatment whatsoever.
Who cares if funding is being misused and people are getting hurt, as long as we keep announcing we're pumping more cash in, right?
"Children self-arm because they don't have any support," said Russell. "If there was more support there would be less people self-harming. We need to think about how to build resilience in young people to deal with the pressure that they're under. Schools, for example, shouldn't be just about exams—they should be about building character and self-confidence."
"We also need to ensure that we equip parents so that they can have conversations with their children about how they're getting on. We need more places where parents and young people can get advice. In person, on the phone, online. We need to make sure that GPs get sufficient training and that teachers are skilled up on how to detect signs of mental illness."
I spoke to someone who works in a London Accident and Emergency unit—who tellingly wanted to remain anonymous—who said that, once the children pass through the doors, "it's already too late." They've already started and it's incredibly hard to stop them once they do. Most symptoms of mental illness in a person develop before they're 15. We know that. So what we need to do is save them before they're in trouble. But that's not currently how our health service is arranged."
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