National media and self-harm

  • June 28, 2019

Coverage of self-harm in our national mainstream media is unhelpfully unbalanced. News stories almost always report that there’s a massive crisis/epidemic of self-harm in young people underway. There does seem to have been an increase but the coverage rarely says exactly what it is that’s increasing. The accompanying story is pretty much always about a young woman with a long history of self-cutting with the implication that’s what it’s about. See for example this BBC news item. To balance up a bit…

  • A recent report in Lancet Psychiatry, based on 2014 results from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, which is published by NHS Digital, was widely covered as showing this dramatic rise in self-harm in young people. It did indeed report on a marked increase in young people but it also showed that people of all ages and both genders report higher rates than they did a decade ago. Self-harm is presented in the media as almost entirely a problem for young women but 5% of all men say they have self-harmed at some time.  Self-harm is also presented as almost entirely affecting teenagers but 5% of those over 35 say they have self-harmed at some time. UK figures show that a quarter of those who go to hospital Emergency Department after self-harm are aged 40-59 years.
  • Self-harm is presented as almost always about cutting, but when asked in the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey more than half people who say they have self-harmed say they have swallowed something or done something else other than cut themselves. Similar findings emerge in the Millennium Cohort Study, widely publicised by the Children’s Society.
  • Social media use is presented as clearly a cause but studies show that people can find it helpful and supportive, a non-judgemental environment in which to discuss worries about eg social or sexual identity. Important when something like a third of people who self-harm don’t confide in anybody they know.

 The truth is that we won’t help people with self-harm until we start taking a more balanced approach to discussing the real issues. “What’s fuelling the terrifying rise in self-harmers?” screams Mail Online 6 March. That’s not a great way to start a conversation, nor indeed a great way to label people who self-harm.

Allan House

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