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Seven year olds treated for self-harming as number of cases among primary school children rises 10%

Watch ITV News Social Affairs Editor Penny Marshall's full video report:

ITV News has discovered that nearly 800 primary school children were treated for self-harm in A&E last year in England - that's a rise of 10%.

An example is 'Luke', a nine-year-old boy who self-harms. The charity treating him, Place2Be, provided ITV News with some of his comments about why he injures himself.

I’ve got all this pain in my stomach and I get really angry and stuff. And… it makes me want to punch somebody. But if I do that I’ll get in trouble.

So, I hit my head instead… on something hard like a wall.

– 'Luke'

We already know about the rising numbers of teenagers who are treated in A&E each year with serious self-inflicted injuries; thousands of them. But to hear that life is so tough for our littlest and most vulnerable that they too are self-harming is horrifying.

As one psychologist told me: “If this many – so young - are being treated in A&E, then the preventive work we should be doing to help them is either not happening or failing.”

The NSPCC, who run Child Line, have also told us that they now have children as young as seven seeking help and that the problem is spreading in classrooms to boys.

As we investigated the issue one hospital doctor told me to remember that self-harm remains largely hidden and that there were “many, many more cases that they never see, thousands of them.”

Academic research suggests that for every child who comes forward with self-inflicted injuries there are another 8 who harm themselves but keep it secret.

I’m not good at stuff. I can’t do all the work. But I don’t like it when they make me stay after school. So I hit my head harder and harder until I get a really bad headache. It hurts. I don’t tell anyone else. Only you.

– 'Luke'

BACKGROUND

Self-harm is believed to be an expression of personal distress, rather than an illness, but it can be linked to other mental health conditions such as depression. Research has previously suggested that it is most common among 15 to 19-year-olds and amongst girls.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

A recent survey by the Children’s Society suggested unhappiness amongst our children was at a peak. The possible causes are well known, break down of family, social media, exam stress and so on. There is also a plus side:

That we care enough to worry like this and investigate children’s wellbeing is evidence of how much awareness is growing around this issue.

The Government’s new mental health Champion, Natasha Devon, believes there is an urgent need to re think the expectations we now have of our children.

She understands the pressures teenagers face having battled bulimia and occasional self-harm herself. “I’m saddened but not surprised by your findings,” She told me. “I get many emails from people asking me if we can do something around mental health in the primary school system. Sadly at them moment, all our work is in secondary schools.”

CHALLENGES

The NSPCC reported last week that one in five children with mental health issues were refused treatment last year because of lack of resources in the system. So helping the children who need help is proving tragically difficult. The NSPCC claims that last year 40,000 children didn’t get the support they needed and requested. .

Mental health experts point out that child mental health spend is 6 % of the total budget but that children make up 25 %of the population.

The Government says it has put an extra £1.25 billion in the system over the next 4½ years to help. It says the voluntary sector, local authorities and the NHS are all working hard to work better together,

But helping children of primary school age who have mental health issues like self-harm is also very challenging.

Talking to teenagers about an issue they are already aware of is one thing; addressing primary school children about self- harm directly is very tricky indeed if not impossible. So new classrooms subtle strategies to build character and self-esteem are needed.

Experts tell me that early intervention to prevent the pattern of self-harm establishing itself is also essential or the problems and trauma of the very youngest amongst us which should be dealt with early and with professional kindness – will be continued into adult lives with potentially terrible consequences.

If you're concerned about self-harm, these organisations may be able to help:

More on this story

  • Why do children self-harm?

    If a child has the impulse to hurt themselves, it can be to provide a distraction or relief from something that is causing them distress.