Belfast Telegraph

Why our teen daughters are being driven to self-harming

By Yasmin Alibhai Brown

I know several mums whose daughters are in total crisis and self-harming. All of them are attending single-sex schools. My daughter was at one such school and although they covered it up well, the problem then was large and growing. The league tables seemed to matter a whole lot more to them than child welfare.

Mother's Day must have been agony for the children and their mums. Imagine the guilt and sense of failure on both sides. Young girls, I fear, cannot be sheltered from external forces, or the storms raging in their hearts and heads.

According to NHS figures, the number of 10 to 19-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who had to be hospitalised after self-harming shot up 25% in the year to 2014.

Today's world is fast, unpredictable, ruthless. It is no place for fragile souls. Internet sites and relationships corrupt impressionable minds, the young are pushed and pulled by hideous competitiveness and are losing autonomous selfhood.

Listen to Lucie Russell, the director of campaigns at YoungMinds: "This is the first generation of children that live their lives in the public domain and are under pressure to create a 'brand me'."

In 2011, I interviewed a psychiatrist at the local adolescents' help centre: "We used to get cases mainly of drugs misuse, violence, street fights, teen pregnancies and the like from the local estates. The same number of boys and girls would be referred. Now, most of my clients are middle-class girls, who have everything, but no self-esteem."

Another professional therapist says she feels helpless: "Facebook and other sites are seriously damaging young psyches. But those who create them are the gods of our universe. We can't free damaged youngsters from the hold of the web, or the hyper-competitive global world."

Research confirms that this is happening across the Western world and fast-developing economies.

A 10-year study by the American psychologist Suniya Luthar found that children in homes with incomes of more than £100,000 were more vulnerable than in previous generations. Luthar concluded that the main cause was "pressure for high-octane achievement".

Another US study found that children from rich families were twice as likely to suffer from depression as those from less-privileged families. Having it all only makes them unhappy and less centred than those who have little.

Maybe these figures are skewed by class behaviours. Middle-class parents can agitate effectively, access therapeutic services, know a little about psychological stability and disorientation. Poorer folk don't even have the language to describe inner distress and are intimidated by counsellors and psychologists.

Their children are also vulnerable, suffering from mental health problems and self-destructive impulses. Many just have to put up with the pain.

I have saved the worst till last. A friend's daughter started cutting when she reached puberty. She found a site for cutters, a showground where bloodletting is the sport. She was in and out of hospital; scars marked her whole body, even her face.

The United Kingdom is rich and vibrant, has the best health service in the world, is universally admired for its creativity and innovation. But too many of its young people are unsafe and deeply troubled.

They are simply written off as collateral damage while the nation fanatically pursues power and prosperity. Surely it can't go on. But it probably will.

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