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Multi-million pound mental health campaigns are having no effect on self-harming and overdosing among Northern Ireland teenagers

By David Whelan

Millions of pounds being put into tackling mental health problems among teenagers in Northern Ireland are having next to no effect, according to figures released by our two universities.

Statistics released by the Young Life and Times (YLT) survey show that one in 10 16-year-olds across Northern Ireland has considered self-harming or taking an overdose.

Those figures are similar to when the same survey was carried out in 2008 – despite huge investment by the Health Department.

The survey, released as part of Mental Health Week, also found that almost a third of the age group questioned had experienced serious personal, emotional or mental health problems throughout the past year. Of the 1,367 teenagers surveyed in 2013 by Queen's University and the University of Ulster, further findings showed that:

  • 28% experienced serious personal, emotional or mental health problems over the year.
  • 13% of respondents said they had self-harmed – 5% had done so once and 8% more than once, with 60% saying their reason was 'wanted to punish themselves'.
  • 13% of respondents had, at some point in the past, seriously thought about taking an overdose or harming themselves.
  • Just over a third of these respondents had sought professional help for their problems. In 2008, when these questions were asked for the first time in YLT, 26% of 16-year-olds had experienced serious mental health problems, 13% of respondents had thought about self-harm, while 10% had actually done so.

The figures will come as a setback to the Department of Health which currently invests £19m per year in child and adolescent mental health services – double what was being spent on the services in 2006.

YLT director Dr Dirk Schubotz said: "These findings from the YLT survey show that despite the investment in mental health services in Northern Ireland, there has been virtually no change with regard to young people's experiences of stress and mental health problems.

"Although mental health campaigns have for some time attempted to destigmatise mental ill-health, by far the most likely reason why young people self-harm remains self-punishment."

Despite the statistics, ChildLine reported a dramatic increase in the number of young people using its service and an increase of 41% in counselling sessions where self-harm was mentioned.

Mairead Monds, service manager for ChildLine, said: "There are many reasons why young people might self-harm. It's a way of dealing with overwhelming feelings that can feel very difficult to cope with and young people tell us that physical pain helps them cope with the emotional pain, and we have seen a significant rise in the amount of children contacting ChildLine about self-harm."

A Department of Health spokeswoman said that while the findings were consistent with recent publications, early intervention was still a key policy.

"These findings highlight the wide range of risk factors associated with self-harm," she said.

"The study also suggests that the emotional and psychological legacy of the Northern Ireland conflict and social media is associated with self-harm among adolescents.

"Disconnectedness in our society can leave young people feeling isolated in their attempts to cope with emotional challenges."

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