Why are More Young Women Self-Harming?

Trigger warning: This post explores self-harm. There are no graphic details of self-harming practice but anecdotal stories are used to illustrate the cycle of self-harm.

A new study of self harming behavior in the UK suggests that self-harm practices are rising among both men and women, but young women seem particularly at risk.

Writing in the journal “Lancet Psychiatry“, researchers outline that people reporting self harming behaviors has risen sharply since the data was first collected in 2000. 2014′s survey data revealed an increase from 2.4 percent to 6.4 percent. The data was collected from a sample of 6,721 people aged between 16 and 74. While the absolute numbers of people reporting self-harm is still relatively low — and that does throw up some issues which we’ll touch on below — the increasing number of reported cases is concerning.

When the researchers broke down the reports, they found that while both men and women reported self-harming, young women between the ages of 16 to 24 saw an increase going from 6.5 percent in 2000 to 19.7 percent in 2014.

It is critical to acknowledge that young men in this age bracket also saw a significant increase, going from 4.2 percent to 7.9 percent, but this is still significantly lower than the figure among young women.

The researchers really boil down why these results are so concerning, saying in the study: ”There is a risk that self-harm will become normalised for young people … Young people need health and educational services to be available, and health and other professionals need to discuss self-harm with young people and encourage them to find safer ways of coping.”

Why Are Self-Harm Figures Increasing?

It’s critical we note that this study did not have the scope or the impetus to look at the reasons why people are self-harming in increasing numbers. Some media sites have speculated that it is because of social media, and in particular sites that can be used to promote self-harm as a lifestyle choice. However the scientific evidence for this simply isn’t there – too little work has been done on a potential link to give us any meaningful data, so any such articles are just people speculating.

It’s also necessary to state the shortcomings of this study. The researchers did something laudable in that they used big samples of people gleaned from the NHS’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Surveys. This is quality data that government policymakers rely upon. However, the actual number of people reporting self-harming behavior in those samples was quite low, particularly in the figures from 2000. That means that it isn’t necessarily reflective of self-harm behavior among the general population.

The other, perhaps more significant, issue is that we as a society now understand self-harm differently than we did in 2000. People’s views of what constitutes self-harm had likely changed by the 2014 survey, which might have skewed the figures. We also don’t know how often people engaged in self-harm, so that also may have an effect on the figures.

Does this explain away the increase entirely? That doesn’t seem likely, because it is quite pronounced, but it does help frame this data as insight into a problem rather than a definitive gauge of the issue.

With that firmly in mind though, there are some things we can explore as to what can feed into self-harming behavior. People who self-harm report a couple of reasons for this activity: one can be to punish when the person perceives they have done something bad or wrong or to punish themselves for an innate badness, wrongness or mess-up. Others may engage in self harming behaviors because they report it releases those feelings.

Stress factors that might lead to self harm can include things like school work piling up, lack of social activity or too much social activity, abuse at home, lack of support at home, fear related to personal identity, and broader existential problems like the current political climate and, indeed, climate change itself. The range of stress factors is broad and bountiful. It also is worth mentioning that, like so much that comes under the internet’s spotlight, it may very well be that social media can magnify some of these stress factors, but again the research is not there on this, so we can only guess at how it might intersect with a person’s mental state.

As someone who has engaged in self-harm in the past, I can anecdotally say that when an episode of mental ill health relating to anxiety and depression was at its worst for me, there was a feeling of simply being overloaded with stress. It felt like a physical pressure that needed to be released. Self-harm helped to focus those feelings and, for a time, dispel them. Of course, self harm leaves marks, and with that comes shame, fear and a range of other emotions that are self-reinforcing and lead to a kind of cycle of self-harm and emotional ill-health. This cycle is well-documented in scientific literature and can be a hard one to break.

What lies at the crux of that, though, is a feeling of not being able to find the help a person needs, and that is what commentators and researchers believe may be driving young people to self-harm. They aren’t getting — or don’t feel able to access — the support they need.

“Non-suicidal self-harm is increasingly being reported as a way of coping, we need to help people, especially young people, learn more appropriate and effective ways of dealing with emotional stress,” Sally McManus if the National Centre for Social Research in the UK said in a press release. “The availability of services needs to be improved, especially for young people, so that health, education and social care professionals can discuss the subject with them and support better emotional health.”

What we can take away from this study is that it appears to reinforce other data: that mental ill health among young people is a rising and pressing problem and one that we cannot afford to ignore.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

27 comments

Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson3 days ago

Awful.

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Lara A
Lara A8 days ago

Thank you for sharing this

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Marija Mohoric
Marija M12 days ago

Bob is probably right.

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Christine V
Christine V13 days ago

I think the media portrays it too much too.

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Mia B
Past Member 13 days ago

Tyfs

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Bob Rich
Bob Rich13 days ago

There is a general explanation of this trend, and also depression and anxiety in general, hate and fear of those different from us, aggression including murder urges. This is from the work of John B. Calhoun:
https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1bQ

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Peggy B
Peggy B13 days ago

TYFS

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Kelsey S
Kelsey S13 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Alea C
Alea C14 days ago

Tyfs.

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Steven W
Steven W14 days ago

very sad.

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