We have been alerted by a number of concerned members from our safer schools community about a surge in young people using technology to help manage self-harm behaviours.
This follows reports in the press of a rise in children and young people resorting to self-harm behaviours as a response to difficult emotions and experiences during the pandemic.
We know from emerging research that self-harm referrals and presentation at A&E departments can temporarily drop (by around 40%) during lockdowns before returning to typical levels. This does not mean the practice itself stops, but that it slips under the radar meaning more children and young people may be coping without the support they need and deserve.
What is Self-Harm?
Self-harm is fundamentally an attempt to cope with and control intense, difficult, and distressing feelings or thought patterns.
It includes any activity that intentionally injures the body such as cutting, burning, picking, high risk sexual or drug use behaviours and excessive exercise or eating restrictions.
Self-harm can be a distressing topic for parents, carers and safeguarding professionals to think about, but it is worth being clear that self-harm behaviours are less about ‘seeking attention’ and more of a signal ‘cry for help’.
Most self-harm will happen in secret and usually comes with feelings of guilt and shame.
Motivations are complex but young people report feeling a release or punishing themselves.
This release is only temporary and when difficult feelings appear again, so too can the urge to engage in self-harm behaviours. This can cause a difficult cycle of high-risk behaviours to manage feelings.
What is Peer Support
Peer support is when young people living with a mental health condition or other complex needs and difficulties support each other with advice, empathy and a listening ear. It can be a vital lifeline for many young people and can help them build independence, resilience and healthier coping mechanisms.
Young people may use message boards, habit tracking apps and social media to share information about their mental health. The increase in this use of technology for peer support is an indicator of how the pandemic has impacted traditional support services which have been restricted for many young people.
We want to make sure that safeguarding professionals and parents are aware of the different types of support young people may seek out within digital spaces. Where young people are unable to speak about issues in their lives, peer support may be their only way to cope.
Can peer support make things worse?
While there may be real benefits in peer support from sharing coping skills, resilience tips and distraction techniques for a young person, our research indicates that there may be some negative factors.
Analysts found posts where young people were clearly struggling with their mental health and speaking about distressing thoughts.
These posts were met with encouraging statements and motivational quotes but the volume of posts from young people could easily be overwhelming.
These interactions may create a feeling of solidarity and validation but it could in fact be triggering for a young person, whereby they compare their progress or emotional state to others.
In some cases, young people may also share methods or tools for self-harm behaviours.
Young people may also be left feeling vulnerable and exposed after sharing intensely personal feelings and thoughts.
They may also develop unhealthy habits of ruminating on difficult feelings or experiences which may be counterproductive in their attempts to cope and seek support.
The importance of appropriate supports
We understand the value of peer support and where appropriate, this should be encouraged alongside existing professional mental health support for children and young people.
There may be additional complexities where a child or young person who has sought support in online spaces does not get a response or receives negative feedback, which might discourage them from seeking further help. It is important to recognise that there is no way to establish the quality of information or advice they receive.
If you are aware of young people using technology to share or cope with difficult feelings or circumstances it is helpful to discuss the value it has for them and what other supports they can use alongside it.