Teenagers are visiting emergency departments for intentional self-harm in record numbers since the pandemic, with some as young as primary-school ages.
The stress and pressures that lockdown has had on children and teenagers have seen reports of self-harm increase by 47% in NSW alone. In the year leading up to July 2021, there were 8489 instances of children and teens up to 17 years old presenting to emergency centers in NSW. This number had increased from 6489 in 2020.
Throughout March, June, July, September and September in NSW, VIC, TAS and the ACT, paramedics responded to 22,400 incidents involving suicide attempts or thoughts. The majority of this number was for young girls ranging from ages 15-19.
Statistics have shown that these numbers were already increasing before the pandemic; however, lockdown seems to have driven the numbers even higher.
The chairman for Lifeline Australia, John Brogden, confirmed that the daily average number of calls nationwide peaked at 3100 per day and has remained at this level since the start of the pandemic. Most of these phone calls are from people of all ages struggling with self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Federal Treasurer Josh Fydenberg called the mental health crisis a ‘shadow pandemic,’ caused partly by the impact of ongoing lockdowns and the research seems to suggest it is impacting young people the hardest.
Schools provide children and teens with face-to-face learning, interaction with peers, extracurricular activities, friendship, and social skills building, and, in most cases, access to mental health and resilience programs. However, with school-aged children already going through a crucial and sensitive time in their development, the added pressure of isolation and stress that is inevitable in lockdown has exacerbated the difficulties they already face.
Living through an unpreceded global event can be stressful for adults, and it is a lot for kids to take in as well. Meanwhile, things like school sports, dances, school performances and graduation ceremonies have seen teenagers lose access to many of the outlets that provide them with stress relief and fun.
Yourtown CEO Tracy Adams says, “The upheaval and stress Australian children and young people are experiencing from the pandemic is a cause for concern. Over the past six months, we have identified that 1,610 contacts to Kids Helpline were from young children aged 5-9 years of age up from 1,588 for the first six months of 2020.”
Adams confirms that Kids Helpline answered 1788 more calls for children and young people than ever in the first half of 2021, compared to the first have of 2020 and that, “Children and young people are increasingly experiencing mental health concerns, including suicidal ideation/behaviour and self-harm”
Self-harm is an issue that has been prevalent for decades and is becoming a predominant coping mechanism for young people.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm is the act of injuring oneself by either cutting or burning to achieve a momentary sense of calm or release of tension of emotional pain. Often, people will self-harm to gain a sense of control again or to momentarily be distracted from mental distress by the sensation of physical pain.
While not classified as a mental illness on its own, it is often symptomatic of a range of other mental illnesses or emotional suffering.
The physical signs of self-harm may look like:
- cutting, burning, biting, or scratching the skin
- picking at wounds or scabs so they don’t heal
- pulling out hair, punching or hitting the body
- taking harmful substances (such as poisons, or over the counter or prescription medications).
Motivations for self-harming could stem from trauma, anxiety, depression or overwhelming feelings of stress and pressure.
Sometimes children who are self-harming may be fascinated with the topic and spend time online reading about other instances of this. They may attempt to cover their bodies or exhibit a desire to hide their skin such as wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts in warm weather.
Other behaviors might look like mood swings or becoming withdrawn socially and could be potentially triggered by a traumatic event or upsetting circumstances like bullying or difficulties in a peer group.
How to help
If your child or teen approaches you and tells you that they have been self-harming somehow, the most important thing you can do is have a compassionate response. According to Melbourne Child Psychology, the most common misconception about self-harm is that it is a form of ‘attention-seeking or ‘acting out.’
However, in most cases, nothing could be further from the truth and chances are your child is experiencing guilt, shame and genuine psychological distress and confusion. The best thing to do is provide support and be their anchor by acknowledging their feelings and letting them know you are here to help them.
It is crucial to fight the urge to have a shocked or angry reaction and say things like ‘why did you do this?’ or ‘you need to stop this – this is such a stupid thing to do!’
Instead, remain calm and let them know you are here to help by asking open-ended questions that encourage them to talk about why they did it or how they were feeling at the time.
Once they are emotionally assured, ask more open-ended questions such as what they used to harm themselves and where they got it. Be sure to ask if it’s ok to assess their injuries and appropriately dress them or bandage them.
Lastly, seek professional help
As a parent, watching your child self-harm can be heartbreaking, and it is ok to feel that you are out of your depth and need to seek professional help or advice. However, it is essential not to make the mistake of thinking that just because you have addressed the issue with your child, it will go away or get better.
Get in touch with a psychologist and communicate to them what the issue is before an appointment, so they know best how to help.
A child psychologist will provide your child with a safe environment to express themselves and learn effective coping mechanisms and strategies.