Self-harm is becoming mainstream and no longer secret or taboo; instead it is something to share on blogs, forums and chat rooms, a doctor from a leading rehabilitation clinic has warned.
Dr David Kingsley, the consultant adolescent psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Cheadle Royal, in Cheshire, told The Huffington Post UK self-harm among young people is “noticeably” on the increase.
“It used to be taboo and kept private and secret but now, particularly with the internet and chat rooms, it’s become more public,” he says. “This has meant some people have latched onto it and now use this means of expressing their distress.”
Although there are no official statistics for the number of students who self harm, Kingsley says he has seen an increase among teenagers and “my sense is it’s increased in students and young adults too”.
The tragic deaths of teenagers such as Tallulah Wilson prompted Tumblr to say it would tackle self-harm content on the social networking site, of which there is vast quantities of material.
And Kingsley says the rise in self-harmers is a “big challenge” for universities and colleges.
“I do think universities could be doing a lot more. Most do provide decent pastoral support, there are some who are better than others.”
What’s lacking, Kingsley says, is any sort of work to educate other students about the difficulties of having mental health problems.
“It’s often going to be the case that students with difficulties are going to come to the attention of their peers quite a long time before they access any of the services provided by their university or college.”
“If they get a negative or hostile response from their peers then they’re probably going to be that much less likely to access university services. As a consequence, their difficulties are much more severe by the time they do ask for help or sometimes they might just end up dropping out, rather than being able to get the help they need and carry on with their studies.”
He continues: “Often students are a long way from home and they don’t know the organisation or how they are going to respond.
“So it’s not that the support isn’t there, it’s how universities and colleges get the message out there to students that encourages them to feel comfortable approaching them and they can be confident they can get a positive response.”
According to the Mental Health Foundation, the Uk has one of the highest rates of self-harm in Europe, with 400 per 100,000 people harming themselves. Those with current mental health problems are 20 times more likely than others to report having harmed themselves in the past.
Kingsley adds the problem with academic organisations is students will think they are exposing a weakness to the people who are marking their papers and that it might have a consequence in terms of their degrees.
“It can be difficult for peers to understand too,” he continues. “It can be distressing and concerning about what the level of risks are.”
Anecdotal evidence gathered by HuffPost UK revealed some students are facing stigma when disclosing their mental health issues, including one student says depression is seen as something for goths and emos who have it because its ‘cool’.
“Often self harm isn’t something which is done with suicidal intent but other students or teachers may find it difficult to know where the balance lies about what they need to be getting worried over and what can be managed with local support.
“Someone might think something is quite minor when in fact it can be associated with serious suicidal thinking and be a precursor to something more serious happening later.”
According to Kingsley, the isolation of being at university, particularly for first year students, can make life a lot harder for individuals who are already suffering with mental health problems.
“If you’re in a situation where you feel bullied or abused you don’t have the access to the social network you might have previously had.”
He emphasises the importance of peer support, saying students need to have enough awareness about mental health issues in order to be receptive and take action where necessary.
“It could make the difference between life and death,” Kingsley warns.
“For a lot of young people and teenagers, the first response they get is crucial. Depending on the reaction, potentially the problem goes underground again and they never get the response they need. It’s essential they feel safe to talk about it.”